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Which Revolution Will Be Twittered?

Revolutions are not driven by technology. Twitter and other social media technology are breaking down time and distance barriers that slowed the spread of public awareness of pressing issues.
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"The revolution will not be televised," said Gil Scott Heron. He was right. Television did not end the Vietnam War and create global peace. But television did expose our nation to the reality that the war wasn't happening as our leaders said it was. And that revelation galvanized the anti-war movement across the country (though it was not as wide-spread as the mythology would have us believe). This anti-war movement pressured our government to alter course in Vietnam, moving us towards ending the war.

It was the combination of what we saw on television and the mobilization of feet on the ground that gave rise to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Television was not the revolution, but it played a role by revolutionizing how we saw war.

Now, Malcolm Gladwell tells us "the revolution will not be tweeted." True. Revolutions are not driven by technology. They never are. But, as with television, Twitter and other social media technology are breaking down time and distance barriers that in the past have slowed the spread of public awareness of pressing issues. And more than television, Twitter and other social media technology are speeding up the process of mobilizing people across time and distance to take action on those issues.

But to say that technology, not issues, is the driving force of revolution is fool-hardy. Gladwell is right about this. But equally so, Gladwell is posing "technology as the savior" as a straw man that he easily tears down.

Yes, Gladwell is able to find many people who have postulated the "Twitter is the revolution" straw man. But their claims are just nonsensical as his. Technology is a tool in the hands of the revolutionary. And while, as McLuhan wrote, technology is not ideologically neutral (and therefore favors some revolutionaries over others), it is the revolutionary's cause that drives the revolution. Without a cause that a mass movement can urgently organize around, there can be no revolution, in the sense that Gladwell describes it.

But this assessment is aside from another class of revolution. Are Twitter and social media revolutionizing how we implement revolutions? This is the real question about technology. For example, the invention of the airplane revolutionized how we conduct war, but it did not create revolutionary wars.

Twitter is revolutionizing how we spread information. It is opening doors for regular folks to communicate with movers and shakers. It is revolutionizing communications and advocacy. But that is very different from creating a political or social revolution. Those are about ideas, not methods.

Gladwell offers a critique that confuses two distinct uses of the word "revolution" as if they were the same thing. And he is creating quite a buzz about it. But in the final analysis, he is wrong in suggesting they are the same thing. Revolutions of method are different from political/social revolutions.

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