Social Networking and the Grassroots Voice

In 1381 the nobility of England were rocked by the Peasants Revolt. There was no Facebook. In 1848 the ruling classes of Europe were rocked by worker uprisings. There was no Facebook. In 1968 student protests swept much of Europe, North America and even parts of Asia. There was no Facebook. In the recent debate about whether social networking is in some way responsible for the uprisings across many Arab states, the answer must be a firm “No!”

But that is not the end of the debate. It would be difficult to deny the pretty obvious fact that social networking has transformed the way in which people can and do communicate and that this has been catalytic for social protest. But communication – the ability and the need to communicate – is a basic attribute of not just humans but of all living things. The interesting question is whether changes in the way people are able to communicate influences what they communicate, in other words changes the way they think and therefore the way in which they may act.

In the 1960s, 1 of the pioneers of how the mode or “medium” of communication influences all of us was Marshall McLuhan. His writing is, to say the least, convoluted and sometimes difficult to interpret, which is ironic for an analyst of communications! Nevertheless, his essential thesis is that new forms of media are new in the sense that they extend us in new ways; in the same way as, for example, a simple hammer extends our physical capability to do construction work. A newspaper extends our ability to think about affairs which were previously beyond the reach of our knowledge. The radio extends our reach into real time far away events, while TV extends that reach visually, and so on. We adopt these media precisely because they enable us to do things with greater capacity and in doing so we are changed by them. We become more aware of the world, of different ways of seeing the world, of alternatives which were not previously available or known to us.

What seems to be specifically new about SNS is what a telecoms person would call the “community of interest” or the selection of persons between whom communication takes place. If it is not totally borderless it comes close to being so. It is no longer dependent upon family or personal or business ties. It’s potentially all-to-all, which means it’s grassroots in every sense. And grassroots changes us all. We are no longer mixing within a self-selected group of like-minded like-interested people. We are potentially subject to a huge variety of opinions and interests and ways of thinking and to a new range of personal and social values. Most of us won’t go the whole way, we will remain highly selective of the videos we view, of the blogs we read, of the persons we accept as new friends, and yet in extreme situations the views of others become instantly accessible. Suddenly, if we live in the Arab world in 2011, we can for a day, a week or a month become swept up in a social protest against oppressive regimes. In 1968 a student protest movement swept across much of Europe and North America with ripples of the wave even across Asia. There was no Internet, no SNS, there were no mobile phones. There was TV and literally a “demonstration effect” but the public presentation of events was through a traditional hierarchical media (TV and radio, the press) and the narrative of those taking part was confined to their own “underground” publications. The events of 1989 in Beijing entered the public narrative only because they coincided with the TV coverage of Soviet leader Gorbachev to China, and the corresponding grapevine in Hong Kong was principally the taxi trunked radio service. The voices of the grassroots were effective, but subterranean. SNS has changed all that.

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