Are we bolder online?
I’ve read a couple of articles recently that got me thinking about how social media and the ease of access to publishing online embolden people. Basically what I’m getting at here is simply pondering the question, are we bolder online than we would be in face-to-face interactions or situations?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “Small Change” from October 4, 2010, he lays out what I think is a pretty convincing article around the theme that what counts as activism within social networks in today’s world really doesn’t compare to real-life activism from history such as the 1960s civil rights movement in the US, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, etc. He speaks of the differences in structure between what I’ll call ‘social media activism’ and ‘true activism,’ explaining networks vs. hierarchies. It really takes a hierarchy to get any movement past a certain point – there must be strong leaders rather than a bunch of people disagreeing who carry equal weight. He also says that social media activists are involved in low-risk ways…the causes usually don’t demand great personal risk or sacrifice or courage like it would have taken to be a young black student and sit down to order at a whites-only counter in Greensboro, NC in 1960. Gladwell is making a statement that “social media can’t provide what social change has always required,” and my interpretation is that he means social change has always needed people who are committed 100% to move the cause forward, no matter the personal risk or sacrifice required of them. But social media activism doesn’t at all demand this same level of commitment, so it’s easier to commit.
In today’s world, it is so easy to jump on the bandwagon for a cause on the social network of your choice, or to say things that you might not say to someone’s face. For example, if you were a young black student in the South in 1960 at a whites only lunch counter, you’d think twice about what you’d say directly to the angry white crowd behind you. But if you were in your living room on your laptop, and the angry crowd is just in cyberspace, I’d bet you may let loose with a few choice words.
My thought here is less about the activism angle, and more about what people say and do online. The two are closely linked, and that’s what has gotten me thinking today. It would have been hard to miss the hoopla leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday in the US around the new TSA security procedures in airports – new electronic body scanners and intense, extreme physical pat-downs. Kunar Patel provides some insights and observations from AdAge’s recent Me* Conference, and he references a panel where Mark Ghuneim, CEO of Wiredset, discussed this very topic. Ghuneim talked about all the chatter on Twitter and other social networks prior to Thanksgiving, including threats of boycotts and protests to hold security lines up on the very busy travel days. He said that 1 in 10 tweets prior to Thanksgiving contained #TSA or mentioned the pat-downs, yet no protests actually surfaced in US airports on those busiest travel days of the year, and security measures were carried out without interruption. “It was a really good example of talking the talk, but not walking the walk,” Ghuneim said.
Talking the talk but not walking the walk – I can think of other recent examples of this from within my own network. For instance, how is it exactly that by changing my Facebook profile picture to a cartoon character this weekend am I helping in the campaign to stop violence against children? Right…I don’t know either. Yet many of my Facebook friends have taken this step. I’m not faulting them for doing so – of course we’d all like to stop violence against children. But if that is truly a cause they care about, will they volunteer at a local center that counsels child victims of violence? Will they donate money to the efforts? Will they walk door-to-door informing citizens and neighbors of the problem that exists in their area in an attempt to gain awareness and action to prevent it? I’m guessing none of my own friends will do any of those things, but it sure was easy to feel good for a few days by changing the profile pic.
Not walking the walk…let’s get to me. I don’t exonerate myself in this area – I’ve certainly taken similar steps like changing my profile pic for varying causes, and might even do it again in the future. And what about what I’ve said in tweets or status updates? Last week I had to take my car in to get my week-old brakes fixed since they weren’t working properly. Nobody wants brakes that don’t work. I talk to the same guy I’d worked with the week prior, explained that the car wasn’t stopping exactly on demand, asked that they drive it, see for themselves, and fix it as quickly as possible. I’d been sitting in the waiting area for about an hour when my cell phone rings, and it’s my husband telling me that the brakes guy has called him, and the two of them have decided that they’ll be installing new brake pads today. I was so irked! This guy had called my husband to discuss the issues rather than walking out front and talking to me face to face. I immediately took to Facebook, and posted “Sitting here waiting to hear about fixing my brakes. My phone rings and it’s the husband b/c the car service guy has called him rather than walking thru the door and talking to me. I’m sitting right here! Geez.” A few friends immediately validated my indignation as they added their comments and tales of similar experiences to the status thread. And yet, when said service guy appears again, I’m pretty nice, and I just ask how soon my car will be ready. I worry about making him mad so that he takes even longer with my car – I am really ready to get my car, go home, and be done with that place. I was somewhat sassy on Facebook, yet perfectly meek when a face-to-face encounter came into play.
So are we bolder online? From my recent observations and personal experiences, I say yes, I think we are. Do you think so too? Will we the people of social media today make changes to this type of behavior just because we recognize that it’s happening? Hmmm.