My Initial Takeaways from ISYS6621: Social Media and Collective Action

It is not often that one enrolls in a course where the subject matter was only invented just over a decade ago. Taking a course on Social Media in 2015 could be compared with signing up for an American history course in 1786—while there are significant milestones to cover and lessons to learn from, these are the early days of this newly inter-connected world in which we are all guinea pigs.

Recent social and digital innovations have already become so deeply embedded in our lives that they are taken for granted. The average user of social media in our first-world society is not unaware of the magnitude of the change that is still on the horizon. Just as the impact of the American Revolution is astounding with the perspective of history, those living just after the Revolution had no way to truly fathom what was to come.

When Lily Tomlin’s character on Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” joins Twitter to engage with other National Spelling Bee fans online, someone says to her, “You know Frankie, the Internet is not like a real conversation – it’s just a bunch of people screaming into the void.” Many users of social media today would probably agree with this sentiment, as we have all had posts go uncommented and experienced the emptiness of the web. But the naivety of this viewpoint is that the Internet is not a finished product and it has only reached 42.4% of our global population. This perspective is too focused on an individual’s experience in the present, instead of questioning what lies ahead for all of us collectively on the day that every human being gets online.

In our first class, we watched a recording of a lecture that Clay Shirky delivered in 2008 on the power of organizing without organization. In that lecture, Shirky described how a society that has an Internet is inherently a different kind of society than the one we left behind. He declares that we living through the largest increase in human expressive capability in history, and the effect of this is that individuals can form larger and more effective groups more easily. Free from the bounds of who people know personally or can reach physically, we can connect with likeminded individuals anywhere in the world and coordinate with them.

Shirky described four patterns of social behavior that can be found online, each requiring more synchronization between the individual and the group: Sharing, Conversation, Collaboration, and Collective Action. Back in 2008, Shirky had a limited pool of examples that highlighted real collective action brought about by Social Media. But in today’s post-Arab Spring world, I think it safe to say that everyone can understand what he is describing—even if you have not yet experienced it yourself.

The Arab Spring is a model of how individuals coming together to take collective action will ultimately reshape our world thanks to Social Media. Think back to Aristotle and his definition of man as a Zoon Politikon (a political or social animal) that requires a community to realize his or her existence to its full potential:

Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

It is our tendency to come together to form communities that has enabled the online social patterns that Shirky identified back in 2008, and this tendency will still exist when the day soon comes that every individual human is connected via the Internet. And when that day does come, we will have the potential to create a new digital “state” that is free of the bounds of national borders or geographic distance, but instead formed by common associations and beliefs of its digital citizens.

When the census of 1890 declared the American frontier “closed,” our country’s physical expansion West had ended. But today our tech-pioneers (primarily based on our West Coast) have opened a new frontier. Perhaps it will be upon this digital frontier that Manifest Destiny is finally fulfilled—the idea that virtues of liberty and justice for all should be extended to every living human being. As Aristotle wrote: “The virtue of justice is a feature of a state; for justice is the arrangement of the political association, and a sense of justice decides what is just.” The Arab Spring is just the first example of this collective action empowering people to stand up for what they believe is just—I would argue that this will continue around the globe until the establishment is no longer recognizable.

This is the true potential of social media—and why I am so proud that Boston College is paying attention to it. Our millennial generation will be the founding fathers of this new digital state, steered by our collective action. And for the first time in human history, that means there is hope that a synchronized group of individuals will be able to bring about the political revolution needed to overtake individual greed and hatred. Future leaders, both in politics and business, need to be aware of this coming change and be prepared for it. That is why it is so important that we discuss these issues in the classroom and why I am excited to be a part of this course.

2 comments

  1. My favorite and least favorite byproduct of social media has been collective action. I guess the reason for this is how serious people take the “action” that they’re participating in; for example, whenever people receive a Change.org petition, they oftentimes will just sign the online petition and think that they’ve done their duty. On the other hand, you see action like Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, etc., and realize how serious of a tool social media can be with collective action. On a far more lighthearted side, my favorite form of action is the lighthearted viral collective action like major flash mobs, snowball fights, etc.

  2. You make a great point that we have no idea how much of an impact social media will have on society and how it will evolve, especially once the entire world is connected to the Internet. There is still a lot of untapped potential for social media being used as a tool to connect and collaborate with others and initiate collective action. Your references to Aristotle were great. Your discussion of a digital state to connect people who share interests or values is fascinating. When America was founded, it initiated a shift in control to the people. With social media, this can become an even greater reality, with individuals empowered and institutions challenged.

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