I want to retain a healthy skepticism about the power of Twitter and other social networks to bring about substantive change. There has been a lot of hype about the Green revolution in Iran, and whether it was tweeting that caused it, and I’d be tempted to side with Malcolm Gladwell – substantive change comes through physical, not virtual interaction.
But with the recent events in Egypt, and the emerging situation in Libya, I’ve been thinking about the nature of change again, especially in relation to the ideas I outlined in The Complex Christ (UK) / Signs of Emergence (US), in which I argue that top-down revolution is to be resisted in favour of bottom-up evolutionary change. Why? Because top-down revolution is classically associated with power struggle and violence, whereas bottom-up evolutionary change has usually been about bit-by-bit change, which can prevent bloodshed.
This may apply more in a corporate or ecclesiastic setting, but within nation states it may be that the nature of struggle is different, especially if there is an oppressive dictatorship which stifles even the lowest level evolving changes.
However, I do think that there is a general principle at work here: change occurs when normal people are given the opportunity to communicate with one another, unmediated by the powers that be. It is irrelevant whether that is Twitter or Facebook or otherwise. What is important is not information dissemination, but shared conversation. Not about ‘this is the news’ but ‘this is where we’re going to meet to make the news.’ Mubarak was toppled because people spoke to one another and decided together that enough was enough. If power-politics is about ‘Divide and Rule’ then social media is the antithesis of this. It is about ‘Unite and Change’ and though these networks themselves did not bring down the government, they facilitated the huge protests and encampments that did.
This, I believe, is how we can see a line joining the revolution in Egypt to the whole emerging church movement: things happen within seemingly dead and immobile institutions when people begin to talk to another and believe that a new way is possible. I don’t believe that it is coincidence that the rise of the internet was paralleled with the rise of the emerging church movement. It wasn’t that the internet made a new way possible, but it did give permission to new forms of connection and communication: people were able to disseminate ideas and discover that they were not the only ones feeling a particular way.
I think this has always been the case, and part of the core code of the gospel is this base-level communication. Jesus didn’t send out edicts or write proclamations. He simply walked around and spoke to people. The message of Pentecost is not about fire-power, but simply this: speak to one another in language you can understand.
I’m optimistic that social media – if it can escape the grip of promoted tweets and constant advertising (which I’m not sure it can) – will continue to be a powerful tool to make powerful structures more accountable. Not because information will be shared, but because people will simply be able to share how they are feeling, and work to act together.
One reason for this optimism is because we can already see how the powerful are worried. In a bizarre move, the US has tried to gain access to information about Tweeters connected to Wikileaks – at the same time as Hilary Clinton called for ‘internet repression’ to cease. It’s clear they are concerned. And that’s got to be good for all of us.