Social networking sites have gotten a lot of flack lately as mind-numbing time-wasters, bringing our civilization ever closer towards its intellectual demise. But in between Facebook pokes and Twitter retweets, civic responsibility can, indeed, flourish.
On Tuesday, a Chinese court set free Deng Yujiao, a 21-year-old waitress who allegedly fatally stabbed a Communist Party official in self-defence from his sexual advances. The kicker: Internet forums led to a public outpouring for Deng, and she became a posterchild for standing up against the Communist Party cadre corruption. What is so striking is that the viral Internet campaign provided valuable public discourse—which wasn’t available in any other medium.
Similarly, media pundits are calling recent events in Iran a “Twitter revolution”, as protesters apparently organized themselves through the microblogging service; and tweets provide play-by-play news updates, where global news behemoths can’t penetrate the shroud of Iranian state control.
Obviously mass mobilization existed in authoritarian regimes in the pre-Twitter era. But recent technology can abet mobilization that might otherwise have been quelled. As totalitarian regimes become ever savvy in censoring their populations, new technologies can bind people across a civil society that would otherwise be fractured.
And these Web 2.0 social movements aren’t limited to authoritarian states: We can look closer to home, to the recent Pink Chaddi campaign, where “pub-going, loose and forward women” protested attacks against bar-frequenting Indian women. The movement kicked off on Facebook and exploded in the mainstream media.
Sociologists commonly grapple with the “collective action problem” of social movements, where it’s in no individual’s interest to pursue goals that are good for the greater whole. To be sure, Web activists are often silenced by their states, but these informal modes of communication—tweeting, or Facebooking—are more casual. Therefore, maybe individuals are more inclined to engage in this type of civic process than to, say, pen an opinion piece for a national newspaper.
Harvard-based political scientist Robert Putnam famously wrote about Americans “bowling alone” as civil society eroded in the late 20th century. But now, it seems, global citizens are “tweeting together.”
Can Web 2.0 foster civic engagement? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org