Last month, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in The New Yorker arguing that social media was preventing real social change taking place by encouraging what he termed 'clicktivism' - a form of engagement and action based on weak social ties, rather than real-life activism based on strong ties.
Of course, Gladwell’s piece was mostly a straw-man argument concocted to earn him some column inches and boost his profile between book launches. And of course it generated a number of impassioned rebuttals from the social movement and NGO communities.
However, while Gladwell was wrong on most counts, the past week has started to reveal the faultlines within social media and activism.
Drawing on the fall-out from the student demonstrations in central London last week (for those wanting a back-story, see the LRB’s fantasic essay on why the government's cuts are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity) we can argubly see clear limitations to the power of social networking and social change.
First of all, there was zero mobile phone signal for many students during the march which meant people were unable to live-tweet, live-blog or upload images and video in real-time. I’m not sure if there was an explanation for the outage, but it had the same effect regardless: people were unable to live-report and co-ordinate actions online from the heart of the demonstration.
And I didn’t see the Home Office intervening and encouraging mobile networks to fix any problems to cope with increased demand as with the 'Iranian Twitter revolution'.
Secondly, the pitfalls of being a digital native became all to clear to students involved in potentially criminal activity whose actions were uplaoded to social networking sites and shared with the world - especially the media who had a field day harvesting and publishing photography and video of students engaged in direct action.The BBC reports in lurid - and somewhat pointless - detail about this while the Telegraph set up a distasteful 'shop-a-student' section [No link, sorry. Refuse to]. As this was the first action for a lot of students, many failed to ‘mask up’ or conceal their identity.
Thirdly, once the media witch-hunt began and the police started rounding up suspects support and solidarity networks sprang to life via blogs and Twitter offering advice for people involved in the demo as well as campaigning to raise funds for those facing charges.
However it would seem that the police are pretty good at spotting these websites – largely hosted on corporate blogging platforms or hosting providers – and pressuring the provider to pull the entire site. The most high profile example to date has been Fitwatch, a blog dedicated to reporting on the police Forward Intelligence Teams who take photos of people suspected of being linked to all manner of lawful protests and adding their profiles to a huge database.
Fitwatch (re)posted advice (widely available on the web) providing guidance on how to deal with the fall-out of the demo which resulted in the entire site being removed by its host, Just Host - purely on the say so of an acting detective inspector, Will Hodgeson, from the Met Police's CO11 section.
As of tonight Fitwatch is still offline, despite the Guardian taking up their case.
So, while Gladwell argued that the "revolution won't be tweeted", he sadly might be closer to the truth then he intended – and definitely more than social change campaigners hope he is.