I titled a previous post ‘The revolution would not be Tweeted’, I also mentioned that I couldn’t see a true threat of online activism, in particular with regards to social media and networking sites. It seems I may have to eat my words and accept a more enlightened approach.
You would have had to be living under a very big rock recently to not have been aware of the chaos that befell London and some of our other major cities. It was the worst case of civil unrest the police had seen for over 30 years, since the riots of the 80s. What started as a peaceful protest outside a Tottenham police station, quickly exploded into wide spread anarchic scenes. People lost their livelihoods,their possessions, their homes and most importantly hundreds lost their minds and arguably their humanity! Sentencing has been severe for those who offended; the most notable case is that of Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan. The two offenders ,both in their early twenties, were brought before the courts on accusations of inciting rioting through the methods of social networking sites (in this case Facebook). At present they are both set to see 4-year sentences, jailed over the use of Facebook.
This brought me to an increasingly re-occurring question; is online social networking good or bad? In the case of the riots, the initial use of social media was predominantly negative,as it was used to co-ordinate wide spread looting and other violent behaviour. However, James Fowler of Harvard states this about networks (which is also applicable to online networking): ‘Positive and negative things can spread through these networks, but on balance if there’s too much negative stuff flowing though a network, the network will dissolve’. If this were true, how come the network did not dissolve? It is clearly all-negative content. Arguably, it is because the balance was restored after all. Following the incidents that occurred in Clapham Junction, London, Twitter was used for a much more positive purpose. A cleanup operation was spurred into action, Heather Taylor, 33, ‘I Tweeted that people who wanted to help should meet at 9am outside Nandos.’ An initial 50 people turned up to help, followed by a further 400 people either helping out or getting in contact to share their support.
I guess I was very wrong in my view that digital activism was not very potent, whichever side you look at, the events that occurred (either the destruction or the clean up) neither would have been as successful/coordinated without digital activism.
So what changed in our social media that meant that these large communities of people could gather and communicate so easily? Clay Shirky conducted a talk on ‘How social media can make history.’ He claimed that, ‘In the past the media that is good at creating conversation is no good at creating groups. And that’s good at creating groups is no good at creating conversations.’ For example in the past it has been either one to one conversations, or one univocal message presented to a group, whether that be through a broadcasting tower or printing press.
Now what we have is, ‘media is increasingly less just a source of information. And is increasingly more a site of coordination. Because groups that see or hear or watch or listen to something can now gather around and talk to each other as well.’ The media is an open source at the user’s disposal, able to project any views or ideas they have into it and see who feels the same, and more importantly see who wants to act on those views. Therefore, there is not a definitive answer to it being good or bad; both evil and good can come from being able to communicate so broadly, it’s the actions that must be judged.
The coordination of the riots due to social media is not the only thing worth discussing, Facebook has been widely linked and claimed to nurture narcissistic users. The actions of those who looted and rioted are not those of conscientious people, nor the actions of the morally sound. ‘Facebook users tend to be more extroverted and narcissistic, but less conscientious and socially lonely, than non-users’. Does this mean we can blame Facebook (and other social networks) for the attitudes (or even actions) of its users? Can social networks cause an attitude in its users where only looking out for number 1 is important, therefore destroying/stealing other’s property is acceptable? Am I saying that everyone that uses social networks is capable of participating in riots and lack certain morals? No, of course not, however, some could be. It’s the same argument that faces violent computer games, is everyone that plays the top-selling game ‘Grand Theft Auto’ going to commit violent crime after being influenced? No, but in extreme cases a small percentage have.
So how can we as advertisers learn from this? How can we take something positive from the massive explosion of activity, which occurred on social networking sites? If we can recreate a similar explosion of interest in regards to a product, it would be a success that would be unparalleled to past social networking campaigns. In 2009, according to Debra Aho Williamson, eMarketer senior analyst, ‘When companies budget for social media marketing in 2010 and beyond, a substantial portion of their expenses will go toward creating and maintaining a fan page, managing promotions or public relations outreach within a social network, and measuring the impact of a social network presence on brand health and sales.’ In 2011 we can see that this prediction was the case, however can this develop into an increase in offline activism (the kind we saw from the riots)?
Andrew Keen, former online entrepreneur and founder of audiocafe.com, predicts Facebook to be doomed, ‘They’re rolling the dice on a public offering in the future at some point. But it’s still not clear what Facebook’s business model is. We’re not in the 1990s. You can’t do that anymore.’ Keen deems Twitter to be the way forward as it does not mirror Facebook’s characteristics, ‘The difference is that Twitter is real time. Facebook is still based on a static version on the web and still reflects the narcissism and inanity of Web 2.0. Twitter is a bridge product. It stands between 2.0 and the future.’
So, whether you think there is still more development and positives to be reaped from Facebook, or you agree with Keen, the fact is, the future for how we can use the social networks is sure to be an interesting one.
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