New Rules for Radicals: A ten-part series on how mass movements are made on the new social web. This is the fifth installment.
Rule # 5. Access.
Mass movements today spread through the ready access to broadband, mobile lines, and social tools. But the access to physical space is as important if not more important.
In the first four installments of this series, I looked at how mass movements get started, how timing is critical, how a common body of knowledge, and how social movements have been able to scale so quickly by tapping any number of “metatribes.” In this post, I look at another critical element in the mix — the access to tools for communication and organization.
Several ways to look at this. The first is how widely distributed the tools are today. In their heated (and sometimes breathless) coverage of the Arab Spring, reporters often noted the importance of mobile in places where PCs were lacking. There was a time the “digital divide” was mostly a talk about access to PCs and broadband; these are no longer the most relevant things. But access to mobile is just one of a number of things that are aiding the development of social movements worldwide. There’s also the access to that common body of knowledge on movement-making. And there’s also access to technology platforms — not just tools — that movements are beginning to supply to kindred followers. Movement-makers are now learning what software developers have long understood — sometimes it is better to be a platform than an “app.” But owning a platform is a privilege, and with this privilege come responsibilities, and most movements have not been set up to meet those responsibilities. Still, it’s safe to bet that in 2012 we will see social and political movements that grow by enabling independent groups to build on top of a platform for the benefit of each group as well as for the general cause.
Along with the spread — of tools, platforms, and knowledge — has come the evolution of technology that is dead simple. Go back seven years ago — when the world first began talking about “social media” — it was mostly a conversation about blogs, wikis, and video. Easy stuff, but not for the mainstream of civilization. Biggest case in point is blogging, which today, according to some reports, is seriously on the wane. Lots of people tried blogging back in 2004/2005. But many soon discovered that the commitment to blog was the commitment to become a writer; not so many people were ready to join the ink-stained class, and many who had joined eventually defected. So when social networking tools appeared, they hastened the end of the “golden age of blogging.” . The new tools were easier, faster, even nicer looking. Of course, folks from the old school would carp that we were entering the era of the “lazy Web.” But this was like the tone-deaf talk of bloggers who had complained about “lurkers” — people who read blogs but didn’t blog themselves or even bother to comment. “Lurkers,” it turns out, were the mainstream, and their time would soon come. Social networking didn’t mark the beginning of the lazy Web so much as mark the time when the social Web began to grow up. And this was critical to movement-making. With social networking and microblogging, anyone and everyone could participate.
There’s one more thing. As the Arab Spring and the Occupied movement has shown us, the access — and temporary possession — of public spaces has become a critical element to sustaining social movements. There are a few things worth observing here. First, the disappearance of public spaces in modern life — so eloquently described by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his books about the “third place” that’s neither work nor home but a venue where ideas are exchanged — has placed a premium on large public spaces, especially those with symbolic appeal. Second, along with the disappearance of public spaces we’ve witnessed the migration of social life to the Web. Fact is, the rise of social networks that I lauded in the last section of this post have had an unintented adverse effect on social discourse. So when social movements began offering people a place to go hang out, it was hugely appealing. Third, while it is tempting to draw a line between the physical world and the virtual, the truth is that these worlds are merging. The deliberate design of programs that blend online engagement with offline engagement may be the future of government. But if that’s going to happen, it’s going to involve the creative rethinking of real estate for the purpose of gathering people. Already this is beginning to happen. But like with most things innovative, it will take some time before this hits the mainstream.
This article originally appeared on forbes.com on January 17, 2012 and has been republished with permission.