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The Psychology of Social Media that Fuels Social Change

Posted Feb 10 2011 3:18pm
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Whether or not Egyptian President Mubarak steps down as protestors demand, it’s clear that Egyptian society has undergone a cataclysmic shift.  Much of this shift is due to the connectivity from new media technologies, such as Twitter and Facebook.  Malcolm Gladwell has gotten a lot of flack for writing that social media isn’t really powerful enough to create real social change.  As I (and many others) argued, that is patently wrong (See PT blog post “Four Ways Social Media Is Redefining Activism” ).  Egypt and Tunisia are excellent examples of why.

Social change isn’t about the tools and it isn’t about how the relative “strength” of weak ties compared to other social movements.    (Note:  It’s important to point out here that, contrary to popular interpretation, “strength” related to weak ties is not a descriptor of emotional engagement or attachment between ties like it sounds.  In the context of weak ties, strength means the powerful impact on the distribution of information of having connections across different networks.) But social change IS about weak ties, because social change comes from the psychological impact of having those ties at all. It’s about the psychological shift that comes from 1) the awareness of other individual’s actions, 2) the ability to have a public voice, and 3) the belief that your actions can make a difference, in large part because you are aware that others are speaking up, taking action and that their actions have impact.  Twitter and Facebook are not the power, they are two of the current tools that facilitate that power.

The story began with Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor who committed suicide by lighting himself on fire in a tragic public statement of desperation.  But Bouazizi had a Facebook friend that was a journalist for Al Jazeera.  The journalist was a weak tie, connecting Bouazizi to a much larger network.  The reaction is beyond the single plight of a fruit vendor.  It is the inspiration others derive from seeing examples of his action in the face of oppression. Call it social modeling of empowerment or collective agency.  The reaction that spread was beyond the immediate empathy for Bouazizi, his family and community; it was the widespread resonance with the core frustration, injustice, and sense of helplessness that drove the fruit vendor’s action.  Social media allowed those core emotions to reach others and achieve critical mass so that others felt empowered to take other actions.

In a recent Media Post article, Biz Stone put the power of social media rather succinctly:

“To just to address this ridiculous non-argument, Gladwell said sending out a tweet is not the same as the entire civil rights movement of the 1960s,” Stone said. “Yea, right, no shit. … No one ever said that. … What we’re saying is no matter what the situation, you need to communicate with others to do activism and have your voice be heard, whether it’s telephones during the fall of the Berlin Wall or social media in the Middle East.”

Social media makes a communication system that connects us with more and more redundancy.  That means it’s hard to shut down for long, no matter who tries.  It is the connection that supports communication–not the specific tools–that fuel the psychological shift toward collective agency that inspired so many to take action.

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