Twitter And Social Change

I share Erik Loomis’ skepticism that we should attribute an important social role to Twitter or other information technology in driving or facilitating the Occupy Wall Street protests. The issue here seems to me to be the same as with efforts to draw a causal link between social media and anti-authoritarian movements abroad — the reasoning is backwards.

Think about something banal. A dinner party. If I were to organize a dinner party, I would invite people by email and they would RSVP by email. My friends would all do it the same way. So an alien might look at all these dinner parties and conclude that email was the key party-enabling technology. Thanks to email, people can gather and socialize! But that’s wrong. Before email, people just used earlier technologies to do the same thing. We use email because email exists and it’s easier. But do we have more and better dinner parties in 2011 than we had in 1991? Maybe we do. After all, they’re easier to organize. On the other hand, email also makes it easier to organize meetings at work. It makes it easier to bug employees after hours. It makes it easier to organize a revolution. It makes it easier to gossip with your buddy who still lives in Boston. But it’s doubtful that you actually do more of everything. There are still only 24 hours in a day. You still need to sleep. And you need to get to the gym after eating all that food at the dinner party. To figure out what’s going on, you need to actually examine how people are using their time and not just observe that the Internet facilitates all kinds of different things. As I recall, 20 years ago we had a lot of anti-authoritarian mass movements in the Soviet Bloc even without Facebook.