What an amazing time to be alive! Witnessing the throngs of people in the Middle East struggling to take back their governments from ruling elites and military dictatorships has been fascinating. Egypt, a country overtaken by a largely peaceful demonstration against its leader, is yet one more instance of the remarkable revolutionary fervor that seems to have originated in the North African country of Tunisia little over a month ago. And the dominoes have not stopped falling!
The amazing thing is that these recent events have unfolded largely as a result of digital communications—the advent of cell/smart phones and text messaging and the Internet’s social media, predominantly Facebook and Twitter. What advanced us informationally in the ’90s, and enhanced global trade in the first decade of this century, is now affecting the world culturally…way beyond our imagination. Social media is pervasive—echoing across countries as well as in our own cities and towns, neighborhoods and marketplaces. It cannot be denied.
Here in the United States, social media has demonstrated its ability to build a wave of sentiment into a political movement. The election of President Barack Obama was heralded for its enormously successful e-mail and broadcast Internet messaging in building a fundraising and volunteer action program. The Tea Party and other social networks turned politics in a different direction in 2010 with Facebook and Twitter. Most recently, the demonstrations at the Wisconsin state capitol grew rapidly with the help of text messaging and Facebook and Twitter. The protestors' activities were quickly picked up by friends and associates in other states.
Information and ideas are spreading at almost the speed of light. At the same time, emotions and opinions are also being spread quite wildly. If you have ever been in or near a demonstration, you know about the fear of fluctuating emotions, hurtful rumors and rapid-fire disinformation that will affect the core ambition of the demonstration.
Leaders of these events create teams to balance emotions, dispel rumors and fight disinformation to keep the movement strong. The only way to manage these negativities in social networks is for thoughtful people to contribute their comments, thoughts, judgments and concerns openly and articulately. Information sources emerge and become leaders that are tested from within and by the groups themselves. Nevertheless, it is important to be wary of demagoguery and overly zealous opinion evangelists seeking to steer a group in their own personal direction.
Our “free speech” society fundamentally supports open expression of thoughts, opinions, emotions and ideas, but we have just elevated “freedom of speech” to a more complex level than ever imagined by our forefathers. Limitations on free speech are already being tested. In fact, some Middle Eastern countries have tried to shut down the Internet and have succeeded for a while. Even in China, the government found it necessary to quash a movement of people trying to build a “Jasmine revolution” by shutting down communication for anyone using the word jasmine in their communiqués.
We are witnessing significant cultural revolutions that, while information-based, can be furthered in helpful and/or destructive ways by this digital evolution. Social media offers an immediate platform to deliver ideas, thoughts, comments and concerns—no matter how outrageous or brilliant, anyone can contribute. Facts are not checked. Significance is not measured. Movements can coalesce quickly. Emotions can radically escalate. A crowd mentality can take effect. These are things we must and we will learn to deal with, but for now are problematic.
There are many who choose not to participate in social media, just as there are people who choose not to vote. What is important is to learn about this phenomenon and appreciate its significance. It is not going away. It is affecting our lives, whether we participate or not.
The convergence of people and ideas around the world offers opportunities as well as threats to business activity and relationship-building. Those who are younger and/or who adapt to change sooner already get it. The world is changing before our eyes. All of us need to tune in to understand and learn more.
Just take it slow, at your own pace. Start small. Build your close circle of friends and communicate with them. You don’t need to comment frequently. Just engage Facebook and/or Twitter like you do your neighbor and friends. Speak when spoken to and be a good listener.
Communication is a two-way street. By taking even the smallest step onto this new global socialization platform, you will understand significantly more about what is going on in the world today!