by Tim Dixon and Jeremy Heimans
When technology comes to politics, journalists seem to replace their boilerplate cynicism with frothy enthusiasm. In America, an ageing Newt Gingrich is acclaimed because he launches his presidential bid on Twitter. David Cameron takes a question from Twitter in a town hall meeting and behold, it’s the Glorious Revolution over again.
They’re not all wrong: new technology confronts old politics with profound change. But much of the buzz around social media today misses the real point. Back in the 1970s, Larry King was taking live questions from his listeners during his radio interviews. That was a more real, spontaneous form of participation than today’s contrived tweet-your-question events, when thousands of people send questions to the prime minister via Twitter – only to have someone else decide which 10 questions get asked.
To re-energise democracy, we need to spend less time talking about technology, and more time understanding how it helps ordinary people develop a sense of their own agency and creates new sources of power.
The power of the traditional institutions of government, political parties and the media has long been exercised through top-down structures and gatekeepers who controlled access to ideas, information and mass audiences. But the gatekeepers are now losing control, as individuals realise their capacity to join with others and exercise real power.
This is the real heart of the change made possible by social media. This is what democracy activists in the Middle East have been saying about the Arab spring. The real change for Egyptians was not the technology of Facebook – it was the moment when one by one, people realised they were not alone. As the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page accumulated thousands and thousands of people, young Egyptians for the first time realised that together, they had the numbers. Collectively, they had power. From the movement they realised that, getting people onto the streets was just logistics.
The leaders of democracy movements often say their greatest challenge is to make individuals believe they can make a difference. New technologies make this possible. Campaigns that can generate hundreds of thousands of followers in just a few days revolutionise people’s belief that they can achieve impact when they come together. This is not just transformative in the developing world – but also in the developed world, where confidence in democracy has been eroded by deepening frustrations with an insider political class and their grip on institutions.
Many observers have been struck by the absence of visible leaders in the Arab spring uprisings. But this is precisely what online organising makes common: movements based on shared values, not charismatic leadership. The new model for social movements is not leaderless, but it is focused on building individuals’ sense of their own agency – not the leader’s power.
As new movements adapt organisational structures and strategies, it is not just leadership structures that change. New movements will rely less on sloganeering and more on compelling storytelling. A lesson of social movements through the ages is the importance of people being able to tell their own stories. Technology makes possible the rapid sharing of those stories in ways unimaginable in the past, such as through peer-to-peer networks which in some ways take us back to village life of past eras. Yet it is decidedly different, because these networks also enable collaborative power.
New movements also bring together the global and the hyper-local. Avaaz.org is helping to create a sense of global identity for individuals, where their local actions are dots on a larger canvas. Climate change campaigners 350.org have staged simultaneous days of action in local neighbourhoods throughout the world, engaging hundreds of thousands of people.
We’re only beginning to learn how to harness new technologies to create these new movements and new sources of power. But at every turn, we must engage with institutional decision-makers, not as helpless citizens approaching all-powerful leaders, but as the powerful engaging the powerful. The technological tools will keep changing and evolving, but the most powerful changes, as individuals start believing they can make a real difference, are in people’s hearts and minds.
This article first appeared on Comment is Free on 26 July 2011