WHEN EGYPTIAN ACTIVIST AND Google marketing manager Wael Ghonim reflected on the overthrow in February of Hosni Mubarak, he said, "Everything was done by the people [for] the people, and that's the power of the Internet." Some credit a Facebook page with sparking the Egyptian protests. Twitter, too, played a role, but a different one--helping to spread news to audiences in Egypt, but mostly abroad. Ghonim sees great power in these tools. "If you want to liberate [a people]," he said, "give them the Internet."
Not everyone is so sure. It's too soon to say how large a role social media have played in the recent Middle East upheavals, but a debate about the Internet's potential to promote democracy has raged for at least a decade, since before Facebook even existed.
There's also the question of what happens after a revolution. In Egypt, according to a report in The New York Times (March 19, 2011), protesters are starting almost from scratch. Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist who was one of the young leaders, is quoted saying, "We are still searching for a good name for a party and an idea that attracts people's attention."
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell assumed the mantle of skeptic in chief with an article in The New Yorker (Oct. 4, 2010) contrasting today's online activists with the young civil rights leaders who launched lunch counter sit-ins in the South in the early 1960s. Sure, these online tools, Facebook in particular, can increase participation in social movements-if you can call a single click of the mouse participation. More than a million people have joined a Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition, but few among them have taken any additional action to help those in Sudan.
What social media are not good at, Gladwell maintains, is providing the discipline, strategy, hierarchy, and strong social bonds that successful movements require. Such connections are what gave the four student leaders in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 the courage to defy racial subordination, despite the likelihood of violence. The instigators were two pairs of college roommates. They all lived in the same dorm, and three of them had gone to high school together.
Gladwell doesn't mean to say social media are worthless: When people have an array of what social scientists call "weak ties"--such as "friends" on Facebook or contacts on Twitter--they are exposed to a greater range of new ideas and information, surely a good thing. Such tools can make social processes work more efficiently. In 2006, to cite but one small example, strangers coordinated online a successful search for a cell phone lost in a New York City taxicab.
Author and New York University professor of new media Clay Shirky is a bit more sanguine. Writing in Foreign Affairs (Jan.-Feb. 2011), he says that Gladwell's critique is "correct but not central to the question of social media's power; the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively."
Shirky argues that the value of social media to the cause of democracy should be measured over the course of "years and decades," not weeks and months. Instead of focusing on the small set of instances in which activists using new technology were or were not successful at toppling authoritarian regimes, analysts should examine the ability of social media to enhance civil society and over time shift power away from governments and toward people.
Gladwell took to the letters section of the following issue of Foreign Affairs to continue the debate, writing: "What evidence is there that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from a lack of cutting-edge communications and organizational tools? In other words, did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving?"
New technologies have sometimes provided activists with a tool that turned out to be crucial, Shirky responded. …