Facebook Revolutions: 'Firing a mortar into the Milky Way'

For someone who believes the social web contains within it "truly revolutionary tools" for social change, observations like those here from smart people about their limitations can be a bit disconcerting.

Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times on Sunday:

To be sure, Facebook, Twitter and blogging are truly revolutionary tools of communication and expression that have brought so many new and compelling voices to light. At their best, they’re changing the nature of political communication and news. But, at their worst, they can become addictive substitutes for real action. How often have you heard lately: “Oh, I tweeted about that.” Or “I posted that on my Facebook page.” Really? In most cases, that’s about as impactful as firing a mortar into the Milky Way galaxy. Unless you get out of Facebook and into someone’s face, you really have not acted. And, as Syria’s vicious regime is also reminding us: “bang-bang” beats “tweet-tweet” every day of the week.

He goes on to quote Francis Fukuyama in the same vein:

They could organize protests and demonstrations, and act with often reckless courage to challenge the old regime. But they could not go on to rally around a single candidate, and then engage in the slow, dull, grinding work of organizing a political party that could contest an election, district by district. ... Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.

I like to think we're entering a new era of social conscience, one that means the bad guys in politics and business win less often because legitimate and thoughtful social activists and commentators can find audiences and rally support.

Friedman and Fukuyama may be right, but I hope social or political scientists somewhere are tackling some of the questions below, the answers to which might help us get a better read on whether the social web demos is just a hiccup in history or harbinger:

  1. Does the existence of a social commons shift our readiness to act when the choices are stark enough?
  2. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and other technologies is the demos being re-imagined as a place in which people can unite to overcome the meanness and stupidity now so endemic to social discourse (especially among the for-profit conservative pundits who populate Fox News)?
  3. Does a Facebook group, in which people share dissatisfaction, anger or hope for change, eventually  lead to engagement or action?
  4. Are patterns in voting and social engagement changing for the better because people have their consciousness raised about corruption, social manipulation, economic distortion and environmental degradation through social web forums?

If the answers are already available, let me know where. if not . . . well there's a topic for a thesis.

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