What happens on Facebook stays on Facebook

I wish that line was mine, but it’s not.  Caroline Lee, skeptical about the potential impact of of social media on democracy in general and social movements specifically, offered the summary evaluation–along with some observations.

The question is whether all of the ostensibly lively action on the web actually translates into real politics.   We’ve talked about this before–and before.  Do our friends or followers online really care about us and what we think?  How strong are virtual ties?

I think the problem is that analysts confuse a form of communication with some kind of idealized social connection.

Online media are great at projecting a message to people we already know, but getting them to agree with you–or, even more, take some action, usually requires a little more effort than posting.  Our friends can block (technically or psychologically) some of our communications.  They might disagree, or they might just have better things to do.  The problem is thinking that posting a note about an issue or an event frees us of the need to do all that other organizing work.  A Facebook post works better if it’s followed by a phone call or visit.  The trap is getting a vicarious thrill and sense of participation by posting your analysis–and letting it go at that.  I certainly am not convinced that the one million people on FB who say they believe taxes are too high or gay marriage is good or any of a hundred other groups…matters in some substantial way.

At the same time, online media offer the promise of more unfiltered communication, achieved more easily.  Liu Xiaobo’s petition was online, but generated sufficient visibility to provoke the Chinese government’s crackdown–and win a Nobel prize.  Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77 was on paper.

Before the Soviet Union fell, activists there and in Eastern Europe practiced politics by circulating samizdat literature, hand-to-hand, in dense networks based on trust.  The same arguments can reach broader audiences more quickly now, albeit with less in the way of trust or personal connections.  Important action followed the efforts of authorities in cracking down or crushing these arguments and activists.

The Tea Party or Moveon.org can organize online, raising money and distributing information broadly–and relatively cheaply.  Getting people to do more requires more work.

And the challenge: getting a message to stand out from all the clutter in our inboxes, provoke attention and inspire action.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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