I went to an interesting talk yesterday at SXSW festival in which Clay Shirky turned his attention to how social media affects revolutions. Although revolutions are a fairly extreme political event, there is a big overlap between how social media affects them, and how it affects the workings of politics in general – and people’s participance in the democratic process, which is what we’re about at Delib.

Shirky’s view is that social media facilitates people to have a voice in a new way, but allowing them to do three things:

  • Sychronise – bring their actions together in time by reacting to each other fast
  • Co-ordinate – Being greater than the sum of their parts through group action
  • Document – cataloguing what is done in a public way that exposes collective thought and allows it to be shared and looked back on. Gives a greater reason to get involved.
Mubarek Protests

[Use of social media terminology in real world protests]

He quoted research that shows that there is a large corellation between access to the internet and social media, and the prevalence of democracy as a political force. The data was quite early but it seems to fit anecdotal observation (not to mention our core beliefs at Delib).

He also made an interesting point about how embracement of social media in recent revolutions in the near east has been fanned by them taking to these tools as a defining mark of their generation. In the same way Rock & Roll was championed by a previous generation.

But there are downsides to this embracement, as evidenced by the Sudanese government’s use of Facebook, who seeing revolutions elsewhere and worried one might happen to them, set up a Facebook page, said there was going to be an anti government protest, and then went down to the event and arrested everybody. Showing how the prevalence and power of social media channels, which are really just tools, can lead to a level of trust that tricks our normal methods of judging group behaviour.

Mubarek Protests

[The documentation of revolution – this image shows a side of humanity that encouraged collaboration]

Overall – the effect of the web / social media on people’s ability to affect their governance is huge, and growing. Clay’s distilled advice for the future was to get involved for the long haul by applying proper effort and thought, rather than to become quick hit weekend warriors (eg avoid the trend of retweeting working proxy servers during Iran election, which was as likely to get them shut down as it was to help the iranians who might want to use them, as the iranian gov were watching twitter too). These are only tools, and powerful tools, but they need careful thought to be used well.

[Written by: Matt Golding, Delib Creative Director]