Nov 10, 2010

The Revolution Will Not Be Twitterized

I may be a really late in piping in about this Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker, Small Change (Oct 12, 2010). I actually started writing this post and then forgot to finish it. I also decided not to say much at the time it was published to avoid the blogisphere kerfuffle about whether or not Mr. Gladwell dissed social networking sacred cows. Now that some time has passed I want to say that I feel the criticism was unwarranted and that Mr. Gladwell actually did some good in his attempt to set the record straight on the difference between activism and networking.

Yes, Mr. Gladwell comes on strong with the "we seem to have forgotten what activism is" argument. Still the article does a fine job of pinpointing the real value of social networks. That social networks are loose links and are great at creating communities. But if you want to bring that community to action then you need stronger links with clear direction, purpose and leadership, something social networks aren't built to do.

This goes back to an argument I've used many times, decide what you want to do first, then pick the technology that will support it. In other words, communication can be loose or specific, and some ways of communicating are more effective at bringing a group to action over others. The fact that there are new forms of communication does not exclude other forms. The article quotes historian Robert Darnton:

"The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.”

In my mind this is really accurate and it sets up Mr. Gladwells premise: That there are many forms of communication that hold importance for what it can do for us. Confusing the ability to network more effectively with activism is doing both activism and social networks a disservice. Both have great value in this world but they are not the same thing.

Twitter, Facebook, and social activism : The New Yorker

BBC News - How ID card database will be destroyed

Meanwhile, back in the States we're handing out our personal information (address, date of birth, credit card info to match our official IDs) to every airline we book a flight on. Who knows how many files, machines, databases that info lands in.

This BBC article demonstrates the difference in attitudes toward privacy in the England versus here in the US. When it comes to destroying personal data the government takes personal data destruction seriously. As one document explains what the British government needs to do to destroy personal information it collected for an ID card system that is now discontinued:

It reads like a toxic waste disposal log, as any machine that has ever come into contact with the personal details contained on the database is either cleansed of its contents or fed into the shredder.
I was talking with a friend form England the other day about this situation. In England there is no assumption of privacy - given all the cameras and surveillance going on there - but they demand (legally) that collected information be treated as private and must be destroyed when it is no longer needed. In the US it's more the opposite. We assume privacy (undeservedly) and feel that if we aren't overtly being watched then the information isn't being collected. Yet we do not demand that the information be treated as private and who knows how it is managed or where it ends up.

BBC News - How ID card database will be destroyed