It was Stephen Fry, on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/stephenfry, who, in response to a criticism that eReaders would be the death of books, that said:
"I collect books. Have done for years. I will no more throw out "real" books cos I have a Kindle than I'll jettison pens cos I have a Mac" (11.03.09 8:55)
"This is the point. One technology doesn't replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators" (11.03.09 9:07)
"I've thousands of books and will continue buying them till I die. Smell and feel, yes. Maybe. But that was true of horses" (11.03.09 9:10)
As Stephen Fry so eloquently pointed out, there is room for a both / and when it comes to integrating new technology with older methods and habits. This post covers only Twitter and my own view. I know there are other methods for enabling social movements.
Much of what we know about social movements is from evaluations and post-hoc descriptive research. This is a good way to find analyse and identify some of the key features of a social movement, with the intent thereafter of trying to replicate some of these so as to accelerate the implementation of organisation and system change. For me the jury is out as to how much a social movement can be engineered, though this doesn't detract from some very important components which seem to work well when implemented.
So where does Twitter fit in to the concept of a social movement?
I feel it is a complementary communication method and perhaps one which can accelerate the process. However, it will probably never take away from the more traditional methods of face-to-face (F2F) influencing. It is a both / and.
1. Tweetups: Twitter can be used to facilitate the gatehring of people both virtually and F2F; called a tweetup! For an example of how viral Twitter can be in organising action then go to http://uk.techcrunch.com/2009/01/25/twitter-meetup-spawns-global-charity-event
for an example. The charity event, Twestival, took only 24 hours to get 40 cities involved and after that a further 60 joined up.
2. Getting the word out; hierarchical, planned and controlled media (if that's not an oxymoron...) tends to attract the attention of a "target" audience. Twitter works through its transparency, openness and democracy where anyone can follow anyone. There are no rules about who gets what information. Of course, the Twitter system uses its group wisdom to weed out individuals and organisations who behave badly - they get "unfollowed" and "blocked" and then wither on the digital vine. You know your message is hitting the right note when it starts to be retweeted (others copy and send to their own networks). This is energy for a social movement.
3. Jumping networks; targetted communication campaigns are limited in their effectiveness usually because they are just that - targetted. Twitter enables the jumping of an idea from one person's network to another which may seem unrelated though could potentially be the breakthrough in attracting the attention of peopel who really care about the topic. The jump can be from one group of people to another or from one techology to another, for instance when a tweet gets posted onto Facebook http://www.facebook.com/
4. Social movement becomes social and has movement; Twitter is informal, casual and to the unitiated often chaotic. When an idea takes off, it flows rapidly through the system. Getting it to this point is difficult, however, and requires patience and practice. In true social movement style, you cannnot make a message viral. It becomes viral when followers deem it of value. They drive it, not you who wishes it to spread. A point to remember is that the enegry comes from the social interaction combined with the power of the idea.
Twitter is one part of what is becoming known as mobile social movement enablers. One of the difficulties of assessing its value is it is developing fast, changing over time in terms of both technology and use, that it is difficult to evaluate. This reminds me of what a social movement is like. Namely something we can analyse after it has happened but durign the process it is all a bit messy, unclear, possibly exciting and almost impossible to evaluate.
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