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NY Times: These Revolutions Are Not All Twitter

Author: Andrew Woods
February 1, 2011


In this NY Times op-ed, Harvard Law School Climenko Fellow, Andrew Woods, writes on the exaggerated status social media has earned in recent uprisings.

The Middle East's latest unrest has revived once again a tired debate about the power of social media.

Recent headlines gush about the arrival of the “Facebook Revolution” or “Twitter Diplomacy.” Critics like Evgeny Morozov respond by noting that the influence of new media has been exaggerated by a press enthralled with “techno-utopianism.” Social media enables fast coordination, critics say, not the narrative or resolve necessary to sustain a movement; flashmobs do not a political organization make.

But to state the obvious — that Facebook cannot replace good old-fashioned activism — is not to say much about what Facebook actually does in a place like Egypt. What does it do?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent critique of cyber-activism, argued that the problem with Facebook and its kin is that social networks are only good at certain small tasks that draw on weak social ties. You can easily get a million people to sign up for a cause — but that cause is just as likely to be “Save Darfur” as it is to be the “Foundation for the Protection of Swedish Underwear Models.” Social media tools cannot supplant the kind of organizing required by, say, the civil rights movement. Social media tools, Gladwell says, “are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

But what if revealing the status quo is enough to change it?

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