The Internet may never forget, but clearly most people can't seem to remember much about network history past their last few status updates. Had we all remembered the historic U.S. immigration protests of 2006, largely organized through MySpace and other network media channels, perhaps Malcolm Gladwell may have never written (and would not still be attempting to justify) his essay from last October. Maybe Facebook would have merely been the latest inductee into a ring occupied by MySpace and a few others as having facilitated a truly social and political worldwide event, helping to facilitate the Egyptian revolution.
The U.S. immigration protests in the spring of 2006 were significant in that millions of people took to the streets in major cities across the U.S. protesting proposed immigration policies, organizing some of the largest demonstrations in our country's history. One little-known fact is that much of the word was spread and organized through MySpace, largely by connected high school students. For more background on the student organizers and the relative simplicity with which they organized their protests, check out NPR's "Text Message, MySpace Roots of Student Protests," and also Democracy Now's "Dallas High School Student Describes Organizing Mass Walkout." Gustavo Jimenez's Dallas protest was recently ranked by D magazine as the second "Biggest Moment in Modern Dallas History."
Gladwell's initial essay for the New Yorker used a few tangential examples of why social media and networks would never be the instigators, conductors, or collaboration tools of a protest. Certainly many took pleasure in kicking the Egypt example back in Gladwell's court, and clearly Facebook deserves credit as being the conduit for the events in Egypt -- which arguably may or may not have taken place without it -- but puts Gladwell's theory immediately into question. Earlier this month, Gladwell wrote an equally confusing response via the New Yorker regarding social activism and social media in Egypt (see "Does Egypt Need Twitter?").
Many of Gladwell's fans say he is just misunderstood, but perhaps his point could have been made better in the context of the U.S. student immigration protests. How did this protest display "weak ties," and why was "not much asked" of its participants in terms of risk and commitment?
Certainly, both the Egypt and the U.S. protests started in the streets, but they spread via networks. To say that these two events were superficial and "did not ask too much of them" would be entirely incorrect and offensive to those involved, as many faced severe consequences for their participation, including the possibility of deportation, or even death.The immigration demonstrations have had a far-reaching impact on the U.S. from a cultural and policy level, spurring dialogue and awareness from neighborhoods, all the way up to the highest reaches of government. The notion that people somehow lose their human nature in a digital realm is ludicrous. Even calling Facebook or the Internet a "social network" sells the entire concept of the network effect short, because as the recent events show us, we have hit a critical point with society itself being networked. Society will continue to act in its own nature. People take action, those actions are expressed digitally, and the network effects still apply.