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Debating the Importance of Social Media in Civic Life

In the video, the music is exciting, the stats, even more so.

1 in 5 couples met online, for gay couples, the number is 3 of 5. Facebook would be the world’s 3 largest nation, and is projected to overtake India in terms of population. There are more tweets posted every five minutes than there are people on the Earth or species of beetles. OK, I made that last one up, but if you saw in it a video on the power, reach, impact, and general awesomeness of social media, you’d probably believe.

I’m one of the last people to try to dampen people’s excitement for social media–after all, my job title is “Social Media Director.” But in a way, deflating hyperbole about social media is a part of my job description. Here’s why.

Social media are actually nothing new. We haven’t always used that term because we didn’t see things that way–social media were layered over other types of media. For example, conference rooms were work/productivity media as well as social media. Coffee houses and bars are drinking media as well as social media. Camp grounds were relaxation media, churches were religion media, schools are education media, sports complexes are exercise media, the theatre is an art media–but all of these are also social media. They just have a social layer that is at once a key aspect of their success and an invisible element in their construction.

Digital social media–like facebook, twitter, digg, or govloop–highlight the social aspect of their design in a way that is more implicit (but no less intrinsic) in the design of a school, synagogue, Senate gallery, or amphitheater. And this is where the stats, and that video in general, start to lead us astray.

We think that because 700 million people are on Facebook, that it’s a revolution waiting to happen. But all Mark Zuckerberg has built is a really large tennis court. In 1789, that’s where the National Assembly gathered and formally began the movement that ended with the overthrow of their king. It was the Tahrir Square of 18th century Europe.

The tennis court was not conceived of as a cradle for revolution, and neither was Facebook. Most people don’t use tennis courts to foment revolution, just as most people don’t turn to facebook for that purpose. People have always used the social media available to them to achieve their social needs–whether those needs are hastening the downfall of a tyrannical government (unusual), finding new music (record stores in the 70s Ping and Last.fm today), or sharing their thoughts and feelings about current events (letters to the editor, open mic nights, town halls in the 20th century, online fora today).

Thomas Paine used the medium of the pamphlet as competently, and with as great an impact, as Wael Ghonim used digital media 200 years later. The method of production has changed, the distribution model has changed, but a pamphlet made of paper still fulfills the same function as a pamphlet made of electrons that manifests on a computer screen or cell phone. And let’s not forget that most of those pamphlets, in the 1800s and 21st century, hock ineffective pharmaceuticals.

Again, I’m not saying that Social Media isn’t important – I’m saying merely that it isn’t new, and most of what happens there may be communal (think lolcats or the currently trending #1ThingICan’tStand), comparatively little of it is civic (think Ushahidi).

(h/t Clay Shirkey for the terminology).

The trick, I think, for Social Media Directors is to understand how our new social media integrates into our very old hard-wired system of motivators and then adapt the media so that people have a greater incentive to engage in civic behavior.

Some people disagree–my colleague and fellow GovLoop blogger Dr. John Bordeaux certainly does–and I’d love to explore (read: collegially dismantle) their arguments in the comments section.

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