Malcolm Gladwell has a good article in the latest New Yorker (here) in which he contrasts the much-discussed revolutionary potential of social networks with the 1960 lunch counter protests. Internet social networks are good at spreading word fast, he says. But the ties between Twitter co-revolutionaries are very weak—they have usually never met. Commitment to sacrifice and disciplined action are correspondingly weak. Real revolutions against established powers require sacrifice, and only deep friendships and committed social ties make that possible. The protests of the civil rights movement spread like a fever, took terrible risks, and endured great privations, because they sprang out of churches, where people met weekly face to face. The first courageous lunch counter protesters in Greensboro, North Carolina, lived together and had spent many hours discussing civil rights together.
The point of this is not so much to criticize Twitter and its kin, but to suggest that real change requires more than meet-ups. None of the activist movements of our time—whether Greenpeace or the Obama election campaign or the Tea Party—have that sort of sacrificial determination. And, it’s not clear where in the America of today one would find the social capital to build such commitment. Not in churches, by and large. Not in the political parties. And certainly not in the vague, enthusiastic communities that find a home on the internet.
That is why we sit in the squalor of this dispirited time. Columnists (David Brooks and Thomas Friedman) contend that the real future in politics lies with a leader who can paint a vision demanding sacrifice and commitment. To which any savvy politician will answer: and get handed your rear end. There’s no constituency for sacrifice and vision more far-reaching that forwarding a petition to your ten best friends.