Heres a paragraph from the draft of the book Ive been working on. Its a draft, so contents are subject to settling during shipping.
…as revolution spread from Tunisia to Egypt at the start of 2011, a controversy arose about how much credit social media such as Facebook and Twitter ought to get. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point, had written a New Yorker article in October 2010 arguing that social media are over-rated as tools of social change because they only enable “weak ties” among people, instead of the “strong ties” activists need in order to put themselves at risk. When some media and bloggers credited social media in the Mideast revolutions of 2011, Gladwell posted a two hundred word essay asserting that the influence of social media was “the least interesting fact.” Gladwells comments were a corrective to those who carelessly referred to the events as “Facebook revolutions” or “Twitter revolutions” as if they were the sole cause, but he also disputed those who thought social media played a significant role at all. Given Gladwells standing, and the fact that The Tipping Point is about the importance of social networks, his position surprised many. But, my point is not that Gladwell is mistaken although I think he is. Its that even if we do accept that social media played a role of some significance, its not at all clear what role they played. The more one looks at the question, the clearer it becomes that we dont even have an agreed-upon explanatory framework within which the question might be resolved. And this is true not only of questions touching the Internet. For example, a couple of months after the New Yorker ran the original Gladwell piece, it published an article by Louis Menand that wondered how to gauge the social and political effects of books such as Betty Friedans 1963 The Feminine Mystique. We look at social media at work in civil unrest and we wonder how much the media shape us? How does it happen? Does media influence have the same effects on all cultures? On all strata of society? How much of social unrest in general and in particular countries comes about as the result of having access to information? How much is the result of communication? Of sociality? If there were no social media, would the revolutions have happened, and, if so, how might they have been different?
As the Menand piece makes clear in its discussion of the effect of The Feminine Mystique, Silent Spring, and Unsafe at Any Speed, we used to think we knew at least part of how media influence ideas and policy. You write an important book, you go on Dick Cavett and Firing Line, and it changes minds and brings about changes. How? Well, um, it altered “the way we think about things” or some such phrase. We had a lot invested in the power of books.
Now, that theory seems not just hopelessly over-simplified, but wrong. I dont know if thats because single cultural items no longer have the impact that they once did, or if they never did but now we can see how influence actually spreads by following links and through up-and-coming tools such as the Berkman Centers MediaCloud. Or both. Or neither.