I was reading this morning’s Washington Post about the difficulty Organizing for America, “the 13 million-strong grass-roots network built during (the Obama) presidential campaign” was having in having a legislative impact. It brought to mind the similar network of that didn’t come through for 2004 Democratic Presidential Primary contender Howard Dean and it also brought to mind Rene Descartes and the problem of mind/body dualism.
How do the non-physical communication strategies of the Internet and even on-the-ground networking into physical reality? Are we really in a world with the only thing that has any impact are sticks and stones, because words can never hurt me?
Words don’t compel action. Shouting on it’s own doesn’t make someone do something. However, communication can affect the context in which actions are taken, making certain actions more likely, and making it easier to mobilize people towards specific action.
Many of talked of the CNN effect as if it what is reported on 24-hour news channels (and now on the Internet) directly causes action to be taken, but the effect is more subtle. Instead, the media and other environmental factors help set the agenda, giving certain subjects higher priority with regards to the need to take action. Theories such as Dr. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s “Spiral of Silence” again focus on how words can shape the environment in which actions are taken. If one set of opinions dominates the media (e.g. if one side shouts the loudest), a perception builds that it is the majority opinion — even if it is not. And those holding the less vocalized opinion head down a spiral if increasing silence, strengthening the louder side even more.
We saw some of these factors taken into account in the 1970s, when “the silent majority” was championed over the “vocal minority”
Now with so many communication channels, everyone can have a voice, but the question remains whether we know how to use our new found voices effectively to impact reality.