Do We Underestimate the Universal Reach of the Social Web?

“The new Revolution aims essentially at a change in directive ideas…. It [is] a choice between so carrying on and so organising the process of change in our affairs as to produce a new world order, or suffering an entire and perhaps irreparable social collapse.” – H. G. Wells, The New World Order (1940)

tree media revolution internet social web
Photo by Giovanni Orlando shared via Creative Commons license.

I view recent developments in technology and media (roughly 1995 – 2005) as nothing short of revolutionary. The incredible pace of technological advancement and increased access to new media and communication tools during those ten years was like nothing we’ve seen in such a short time span and nothing we might see again for generations. From dial-up to WiMax, the browser-less web to OSx and Google Chrome, from buddy chat to Twitter, and low quality streaming audio to YouTube and video chat. Not to mention, TVs and monitors are now flat and gigantic.

We can have it all now and slowly the big picture is coming together, new tools and modes of communication are growing more comfortable for greater proportions of the global population. In many ways we’ve already leapfrogged adoption of previous generations’ groundbreaking tech. For example, many Native American reservations in the southwest were NEVER wired for telephones but now are not only on the mobile grid but have hi-speed WiFi setups such as the Tribal Digital Village.

Even early adopters of social tools on the web still find themselves in a sort of honeymoon phase — so excited to have the new tools yet not ready to get practical with them and in other cases hesitant to engage peers and family members who may be slower to pick up on new tech. Even the media is waiting for the proverbial “other shoe” to drop, slipping off the heels of privacy issues (Facebook), feature flaws (Apple), or media companies getting in the way of foreign policy (Google).

We’re nowhere near seeing the potential of the internet as a communication device and as a powerful social tool.

But I cringe a tiny bit when I see one of my mentors and colleagues minimizing the scope of social media’s — and the web’s global reach. That was my first reaction to reading the beginning of Geoff Livingston‘s next book, currently titled The Fifth Estate. Now, I know Geoff is not looking to repeat what he already covered in Now is Gone but I hope to see broader strokes applied from a global perspective.

For many Americans, the rise of social media is tied to a political shakeout due to blogger backlash or an embarrassing clip of a candidate memorialized on YouTube. Geoff points to the election of Jim Webb as Virginia senator in 2006, which happened after a pivotal YouTube video led to a destructive backlash against the incumbent George Allen — the infamous “‘Macaca’ moment.”

I had a similar awakening through the rapid rise and fall of the Howard Dean campaign in 2004. Dean’s campaign was the first test of the Netroots, in which bloggers on the progressive left, behind the brilliance of political strategist Joe Trippi, rallied behind Dean and turning him into a formidable candidate in a battle that was largely viewed as Kerry vs. Gore. Influencers in the blogosphere got on board, spread the word, and suddenly the people had their candidate, in spite of what the mainstream media was calling a two-man race.

But Dean’s undoing was not unlike Allen’s — and after a strong showing in the Iowa caucus, shot himself in the foot with the “Dean Scream.” There may not have been YouTube (or even Twitter and Facebook) at the time, however, the Dean Scream shot around the world, gaining “cult-like status on the web” thanks to social media, blog posts, and audio remixes.

For people in many countries, however, the rise of these new social devices and online tools have been marked more by mobile phones than online social media platforms — at least to this point. News and photos from the scene of the July 2005 London bombings were spread via SMS messages from people on the trains to their loved ones and photos uploaded directly to Flickr and other photo sharing sites like moblog.co.uk.

But it’s not just how social media has influenced how news is reported and affected the way political campaigns are managed. It’s about how these revolutionary technlogies enable a freer flow of information between agents of social change and primary points for action.

In 2003, journalists first got word of the severity of the SARS epidemic thanks to an SMS message from medical sources in China (read about this and more in Dan Gillmor‘s We the Media). Had it not been for these SMS messages and the ensuing global communications on listservs among medical professionals scrambling for a vaccine, the global scale of SARS could have been much worse — the Chinese media and government certainly weren’t letting on about it.

Personally I don’t like the term Fourth Estate and I certainly don’t think that our newly enhanced and increasingly social media need the badge of being a Fifth Estate — it’s all the same — and it seems to me that media in general can do a much better job of holding the government in check. Ironically (or maybe not) the term Fourth Estate refers to the press as a fourth branch of British parliament (or the three French states-general, as Wikipedia would have it).

Bollocks, I say! More branches does not make the tree grow taller, faster. Let’s take advantage of these revolutionary times, adapt and consolidate for the greater good and, like Wells wrote, save society from collapse and bring hopefulness to future generations.

Part 2 in an series of posts and cross-published comments inspired by friends’ recent blog posts. This one inspired by “Welcome to the Fifth Estate,” by Geoff Livingston.

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