Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Click "Like" and change the world

Wildly simplified, Moore's law famously states that the capacity and speed of computing technology doubles every two years.

Here's another law that is equally accurate and would be remarkable were it not for the fact that it's based on 20 years of Internet history instead of the precise calculations of an ingenious mind: The implications of every advance on the Internet will be overstated.

A famous example from the Internet's infancy was the thought among some really, really smart people that the Internet would help the world resolve conflicts before countries and people resorted to guns and bombs, because we'd have the communications capacity to work things out. Of course, a version of the opposite has proven true -- the more we communicate in real time with each other, the more we disagree. And shooting wars certainly haven't diminished.

Advocates of social media (read: Facebook and its step-cousins) think this is a marvelous way to organize people into taking real action that will change the world. In other words, by clicking "Like," we can end racism, AIDS, and obesity.

I kid. But let's hear from a really, really smart person --Malcom Gladwell, author of Blink and Tipping Point, writing in the New Yorker:
The evangelists of social media ... seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend ... Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.
Why is this not painfully obvious to anyone observing the phenomenon? Perhaps it's because we desperately want to believe that the world really can change by our clicking "Like", because, wouldn't that be splendid and not require us to get our hands dirty?

The Post Register launched its very own Facebook page last spring and, as of today, 888 people have clicked "Like." We are very proud -- I confess that I check that number from time to time and enjoy watching it go up. We're going to have some kind of party when we hit 1,000. As a result of all of these Facebook friends, the Post Register is ... no more or less successful than it had been without them.

Facebook is a free and easy promotional tool, and we do occasionally get some interesting feedback on our page. Beyond that, it's a non-event.

But enough about my newspaper. What about, you know, changing the world? Here's more of that pesky data from Gladwell: The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.

I know, and I know -- that's $115,410.51! That's nothing to sniff at, and it's a good deal more than zero. But change the world it will not, and it certainly is less successful in fund-raising than other, more traditional means.

Gladwell contrasts the early organizing efforts of the civil rights movement with similar efforts online. Would Jim Crow have been defeated by a million people clicking "Like?" Of course not, and we won't end hunger or breast cancer with a mouse click, either.

I like Facebook -- I'm on it every day that I'm not on vacation or otherwise engaged in productive human activity. It's allowed me to re-connect with some old friends, stay connected with my family and to post my really pretty pictures of sunsets. It's entirely possible, however, that if I had exchanged my time on Facebook with some other activity that the common cold would be history by now. Probably not, but you get my drift.

Now, click "Like," please.

Update: We're up to 890, just in the time it took to write this. (Like!)

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