Facebook membership recently passed 500 million, prompting some to observe that if the social networking site were a country, it would now be the third most populous in the world after China and India. Certainly, the explosive growth of social media communities like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and the part they are coming to play in politics and global business, has made government officials and business executives sit up and take note. Within the space of a few short years, social media and the Internet—in tandem with globalization and the birth of a new middle class—have emerged as forces challenging traditional assumptions of physical borders, individual rights, and cultural identity.
The networks and friendships created online may prove stronger than traditional national boundaries. They may erode political power in one place and create it overnight in another. Governments can embrace or guide social media, discourage or try to shut it down, or use it as a barometer of public opinion. What they cannot do is ignore it.
As governments craft their social media strategies, one can imagine them sitting around conference tables in ministries and capitals all over the world, asking questions like:
What is social media anyway?
Our brain trust of imaginary bureaucrats may picture social media as a few web communities, including Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter. The world is a big place, however, and the concept of social media is expanding as more diverse and multilingual communities of interest come online. Professors Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.”
In other words, social media can be anything from blogs welcoming user feedback to online bulletin boards sharing crop price or weather information. The common denominator is the multi-point, informal conversation.
Isn’t social media just newspapers and television on steroids?
Like newspaper and television before it, the Internet is making people more informed and aware than ever before. What differentiates the Internet, and specifically social media, is the merging of consumers with producers of content. It has been, and will be, far more empowering than the one-way messaging of newspapers and television.
For this reason, governments must watch social media more closely than they ever watched traditional communications media. In some societies with comparatively broader controls over communications and speech, social networking sites are emerging as alternative outlets for political, cultural, and personal expression. Legal, political, and security challenges pile up as commerce takes place online across borders, personal information is shared and stored in a borderless cloud, copyright laws of one country are ignored online, and virtual currencies gain real-world value.
Social media can be controlled, can’t it?
Some countries, of course, can and do block access, either by shutting off specific sites or in extreme situations (think North Korea) denying Internet access altogether. Our group of bureaucrats, gathered around their conference table, has probably figured out that, short of the North Korea route, there is no meaningful way to prevent social networking from happening. It would be like trying to stop people from gathering and talking, on an Internet scale. Government planners charged with maintaining social stability or the status quo by controlling social media are reaching in unison for the aspirin bottle, because they know full well that any reasonably free interchange of ideas will go in unpredictable directions.
Take Egypt, for example. With press speculation about the failing health of long-serving President Hosni Mubarak, many expect him to tap his son, Gamal, to succeed him. The investment banker is not popular on the Cairo street, however, so posters and TV images portraying Gamal as the “dream of the poor” have been posted, ostensibly by supporters of the President. Egypt’s young and tech savvy population may not be buying it. With more than 3.5 million Egyptians using Facebook, the recent defacement of his Facebook page is a real embarrassment; meanwhile, one-time presidential hopeful Mohamad Al Baradei’s online petition garnered 455,000 signatures. This is clearly not what President Mubarak’s aides were hoping for.
Add to this the fact that millions of people worldwide are carrying cell phones equipped with video cameras. Everything runs the risk of being recorded and tweeted for global consumption, including the bad behavior of public officials and police officers, unsanctioned protests, devastation following a natural disaster, or the murder of a young woman on the streets of Tehran. Gone are the days when public messaging could be turned on and off like a spigot through control of television and radio (although plenty of governments are still trying). Now, content is online before governments have time to consider spin.
So if we can’t stop it, how do we use it for our own purposes?
This is the good news for our civil servants-turned-social media strategists. Social media allows governments and public figures to reach their constituencies directly, and to do so in a way that feels “grass roots” and informal. In China, Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao both have Facebook pages, and Premier Wen has held several online “town meetings.” Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathon–ahead of elections in 2011–uses his Facebook page on a daily basis to communicate with Nigerian citizens on a host of issues.
Even better than the time-honored government trick of sending up “trial balloons” through deliberate leakage of information in newspapers (“according to unnamed government sources…”), social media allows governments to float information and ideas in an informal way, and gauge public response almost instantaneously. Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon, for example, recently used Twitter to float the possibility of legalizing certain drugs as one way to address continued gang-related narco-trafficking violence.
Clay Shirky argues in a Ted talk that U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama’s ability to use social media to his advantage in 2008 marked a paradigm shift in election campaign fundraising and communications. One unconventional strategy that paid off, according to Shirky, was the website’s tolerance of negative comments posted by a group of supporters who opposed a specific Senate vote Obama had made.
How will social media change our priorities?
Social media remains, for the moment, primarily the tool of the privileged classes. The so-called Twitter Revolution in Iran, for example, has by some accounts been over-played, as most Twitter users were English speakers and even the majority of Farsi tweeters were outside Iran. If social media played a role, it may have been more in raising awareness outside Iran, as most protest planning took place via word of mouth or through texting, according to some reports.
At any rate, this concentration of social media power in the hands of the privileged is temporary. World population is growing fastest in emerging markets, where a new generation of consumers are growing up with cell phones and Internet cafes. Internet analysts are already predicting the death of email as texting and mobile Internet applications surge ahead. The younger set is less concerned about privacy, and more concerned with being heard. Think about the recent Wikileaks controversy in which classified U.S. government data was posted online—public reaction to the issue has polarized around the right to information versus the responsibilities of personal with privileged national security access to act with restraint.
Ultimately, as governments hash out their social media policies—as they undoubtedly are doing in conference rooms in capital cities worldwide—I personally hope they are coming to the conclusion that the embrace of social media represents a Hobson’s Choice of sorts. By harnessing online communities, the potential for good is exciting and expansive. And frankly, there is no long-term alternative.