Note: This article was originally posted on April 20th, 2009.
Ok, look…I am not a social media fanatic. I never had a MySpace page, I only have a passing interest in Facebook and LinkedIn, and the first time I tried Twitter over a year ago, I hated it and promptly disengaged. I’ve only been using it again for about 6 weeks but I’m beginning to catch glimpses of how this might be a truly powerful force for change in the world.
I’m only making this connection because I read Al Gore’s fantastic book, The Assault on Reason. It was published in 2007 and already, thankfully, the return to reason that he so convincingly outlines is needed, is coming to pass. The book is, I think, one of the most important so far this decade and well worth the read. The 30-second summary is that our democracy is in serious trouble because reasoned national debate is impossible with only one-way communication. On the cover flap, Gore writes, “We live in an age when the 30-second television spot is the most powerful force shaping the electorate’s thinking…”
It’s almost as though he is chronicling the change in real time as he writes in Chapter 5:
“Without printed words — and the knowledge conveyed by them to the masses who became literate — there would have been no Bill of Rights in America to protect the freedom and dignity of individuals…As soon as complex thoughts could be easily conveyed from one individual to the mass of others — and as soon as others could easily receive them and potentially agree with them — every individual suddenly had the potential for leveraging mass political power.”
Turns out that translating complex thoughts into 140 characters or less is just as powerful, and the combination of Twitter and the simple transfer of information allowed by the internet, is exponentially so. The beginning of this transformation back to two-way communication started of course, with the internet, and gained real traction with bloggers. Most media pundits admit that the 2006 election was the first in which the bloggers, real people with no particular fame or influence up to that point, suddenly DID have influence. The blogosphere became the public response to the corporate news and the campaign spin.
Now we have corporations forced to listen and participate in the dialogue when an unfairly treated employee or customer with a Twitter account has the power to spread their experience like wildfire, even faster and broader than email. How about Twestival, the “festival on Twitter,” which raised over $250,000 and brought worldwide public awareness to the global water crisis? Even great news stories, like the plane in the Hudson River, is breaking first on Twitter. If you’re not yet convinced, read Mashable’s list of Top 10 Extraordinary Twitter Moments. It’s like we’ve entered the age where people, ordinary individuals who take an interest in a cause, issue, or event, have the ability to shape global news. This is true democracy, where people have the power to influence the decisions of those who represent them. And I mean democracy in every sense of the word, not just politically. If we combine the reasoned decisions and ideas of individuals, with the instant global transmission allowed by technology like Twitter, the result is so far looking a lot more like Al Gore’s prediction from his book that two-way communication plus national (even global) debate equals better-functioning democracy.
As The Assault on Reason went to press, Biz Stone and Evan Williams were just figuring out how to send their first “tweets.” But I think Al Gore, and perhaps someone else, saw it coming. You may not agree with his politics, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Gore is an eloquent and inspirational speaker and writer. So in summary, I’d like to leave you with a final passage from his book, which contains a quote from another eloquent speaker:
“Today, reason is under assault by forces using more sophisticated techniques: propaganda, psychology, electronic mass media. Yet democracy’s advocates are beginning to use their own sophisticated techniques: the Internet, online organizing, blogs, and wikis. I feel more confident than ever before that democracy will prevail and that the American people are rising to the challenge of reinvigorating self-government…Dr. Martin Luther King once said, ‘Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.’”
I believe it is democracy’s advocates who represent the new spirit. But Twitter may be the first of the new vehicles we’ve needed for it to really get traction.