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Twitter Politics, and the Folly of Focusing on the Big Bang

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, October 19 2010

Kids doing something that might someday lead to something.// Credit: Eden Pictures

Twitter co-founder and creative director Biz Stone is hot up on the Atlantic with a rejection of Malcolm Gladwell's premise that social media is no good for political change. Stone rightly, if subtly, tweaks Gladwell for overlooking the potential power of "weak ties" between people, which, justsohappens, was the very subject of Gladwell's 2002 best-selling book "The Tipping Point." Oh yeah. Touché. And Stone hints at another angle on what Gladwell gets wrong, and it has to do with scale:

In a recent article titled, "The Revolt of China's Twittering Classes," Professor Yong suggests that Twitter "invites new possibilities for reshaping China's authoritarian regime," by chipping away with a process he calls "micro-politics." According to Yong, "Recent years have seen an explosion of activities indicating that Twitter has become the coordinating platform for many campaigns asserting citizens' rights." Bit-by-bit, the open exchange of information provided by Twitter "can push forward real change." Yes, Mr. Gladwell, we are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

It's an enormously solid point. But Stone, frankly, seems to throw away the win at the wrap of his piece. Stone goes back to the two huge global examples of Twitter's impact on big events, writing that "Twitter users played their roles in Moldovan revolts and the political unrest in Iran." The thing is, if you fancy yourself a proponent of the notion that social media can contribute to meaningful social change, constantly going back to what happened in Moldova last April to challenge that country's Communist leadership and in Iran last June to protest a fundamentally flawed election seem to be among the worst of your possible examples. To pick on Clay Shirky a bit, lighting fireworks over "the big one" shifts the frame of the debate in a way that leaves actual political organizers unable to compete. Regime overthrowings, even unsuccessful ones, suck all the oxygen out of the room. As a result, all of the little things, like the memes that propagate like crazy (as in the "It Gets Better" idea about reaching out to gay youth), the millions of personal connections that get made effortlessly, and the emergent political ideas that get prodded and tweaked in social media fora pale in comparison. They can't help it.

If you're constantly looking for the next Twitter revolution, you're missing out on the millions of tiny things happening that just might, eventually, tip the world towards justice.