This article was originally published on Boydneil.com on September 17, 2012.
From the cult of the amateur to the cult of the social, Andrew Keen confronts with literacy and occasional venom the effervescence of the social media evangelist, a category into which he puts people like Mark Zuckerberg and Don Tapscott.
In his recent book Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolutuon is Dividing, Diminshing, and Disorienting Us — the allusion to Hitchock’s masterful film Vertigo is deliberate — Keen rips those who see social sharing as a panacea for our troubled civic and business zeitgeist. His attack is toothy, articulate and occasionally overblown:
“Franz Kafka could have invented today’s great digital exhibitionism, with its cult of the social and its bizarre fetish with sharing.”
I share Keen’s fear of the pathological narcissism that has become a stand-out thread in the fabric of social networks (and the raison d’etre of reality television), the loss of privacy that the concept of ‘big data’ implies and the sacrifice of the self — alone — that comes from over the top sharing (never mind the cult of consumption that assumes a lust for goods is normal, if not essential . . . but that’s for another post.)
Where we part ways is about the role the social web can play in social change. Just because the social web failed to ensure democracy in Egypt, as Keen contends, doesn’t argue against its efficacy, even when constrained by authoritarian governments, as a midwife to digital connection and engagement and an intermediary to action in the streets.
Revolutions don’t often lead to democracy: Unguided revolutions are certainly unlikely too since radicals and terrorists are organized, as we are seeing now in the violent street actions targeting US interests. As Canada’s The Globe and Mail editorialists observe “The riots serve the interests of the Islamic radicals who are jockeying for power in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and beyond.”
However, this is just an argument for better leadership by democrats and humanists when the social web brings people together, not one that the social web is not useful or necessary as an infrastrucutre for dissent.
I think Keen knows this. He leaves a crack open for the efficacy of online connection as a platform for social change:
“But for democracy to congeal in organizations like March 15, for 2011 to avoid becoming a repeat of 1848, another year of failed revolutions against authoritarian states, leaders have to emerge and translate social media’s undoubted potential (my emphasis) into properly financed, structured movements with accountable leadership and a viable politic agenda that goes beyond the vague promise of liberating people’s minds.”
With those rather incongruous words “undoubted potential”, Keen could be implying that in fact, the so-called weak ties of social networks can become the strong ties needed for action, and that joiners can be moved to become participants with the leadership of social web organizers who know what they are doing, and who are not religious fanatics or political ideologues.