Why Revolutions Are Being Tweeted

A few weeks back respected trend spotter Malcolm Gladwell commented that The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted. His argument is that twitter and social media does not generate the personal connections or convictions needed to create the revolutions of the past, such as the courage four young black men had to sit down in a “whites only” restaurant and request service. At the time, his arguments and sources sort-of-convinced me.

But, hearing and seeing first hand how the ground shifted in Calgary last week, it’s clear that Twitter and social media were crucial.  I have some theories as to why revolutions can happen via twitter.

First, twitter with its 140 character limit is a “cool” medium, to use the language of Marshall McLuhan.  This means that you have to interpret it.  And people interpret short, often ambiguous information and messages according to their own context.  The act of interpreting–or interacting–with this medium and message draws you in.

Second, social media can create an “imagined community” of people who feel a part of the same group. (This time I’m borrowing the thesis of Benedict Anderson who argues that nations are imagined in the sense that people belong to them in their own way, in their own mind–being “Canadian” or “American” means different things to each person).  In the case of our “revolutions, because they are all following a candidate, many participants may feel they have more in common with each other and the candidate than is really the case.  And imagined communities can be powerful.

Third, maybe the structure of political revolutions has changed with the times.  Gladwell suggests that twitter works best for getting things done when you’re not asking too much of people.  He suggests that Revolutions in history have typically happened because people were willing to sacrifice everything including their lives to achieve a goal.

Perhaps 21st century “Revolutions” will happen because millions of people did a few little things (instead of fewer people sacrificing their lives).   On Twitter, blogs, facebook, etc. it’s easy to ask people to chose one small thing as Obama’s team did with fundraising–anyone can donate $5 and then feel a part of the campaign (and become part of it’s imagined community).

In Calgary, followers were tweeted tips for getting out the vote, and apparently they did. The voter turn out for Calgary’s municipal election rose from 18% in a previous election to 53% this time.

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BTW – you can also follow me on Twitter (@Wendy_Waters)

4 comments

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  2. Des says:

    Wendy,

    Naheed Nenshi’s campaign 2.0 is a perfect illustration of Gladwell’s point: while it’s admirable that their team was able to get out so much of the vote and that the winner ran a very issues-based campaign, the stakes are a whole lot more mild than in a ‘real’ revolution.

    Those four black men that Gladwell speaks of ran the very real risk of being killed; taking that risk together demanded strong personal connections that run deeper than twitter or facebook. Last week’s Calgary voters, well, they didn’t really risk anything, though it’s admirable that they participated in democracy; at that level, weak connections (though still meaningful) suffice.

    Compared with civil rights, it’s a bit of a stretch to sell the Calgary election (however positive and encouraging) as a ‘revolution’. Maybe web 2.0 will lead to more engagement and participation, but real, high-stakes revolution? Hmmm…

  3. Wendy Waters says:

    Thanks for the comment Des. I was probably too short in explaining my thoughts above.

    I’m not sure that we’ll ever see the equivalent of those four men sitting down in a white’s only cafe, in terms of the risk they took.

    In today’s world they would have tweeted and text’d all their friends and a mass protest would have happened, bigger confrontation, etc. Live TV coverage would protect them along with 1000 mobile phone cameras.

    Even other recent world revolutions (think Cuba in 1959 or Nicaragua in 1979) would probably not occur in the same way today as they did then (one small committed group of people fighting and succeeding in seizing power).

    Today it would be more of a mass movement, with many people doing little things, than it was back then (and even in those revolutions they had a lot of local villagers and students doing little things each). Today it would be organized by twitter, or facebook, or blogs, and smart phones.

    My point is that today’s revolutions will be more decentralized, with power distributed through many cells and via cel phone.

    That’s why the revolution will be tweeted.

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