Debate: Can Sustainability and Resilience Be Tweeted?

2011•03•25 Jacob Park Green Mountain College

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, wrote a thought-provoking article arguing that the tools of social media have not reinvented social activism as we know it. In fact, he asserts quite forcefully and convincingly that “social media can’t provide what social change has always required”.

Of course, his argument sounded more convincing before a fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest what he saw as corruption and lack of social justice in Sidi Bouzid, a city outside the usual tourist trek in Tunisia. The protests that followed gained momentum through the use of social media, with one commentator arguing that:

“Mobile phones, blogs, YouTube, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds have become instrumental in mediating the live coverage of protests and speeches, as well as police brutality in dispersing demonstrations.”

These protests set off a chain of events that the international community is still grappling with, particularly in Egypt and Libya, and perhaps in the future in many other countries in the Middle East and beyond.

Reflecting upon how seriously concerned governments are about the impact of social media, we should note that Egypt’s response at one time was to try to shut down the Internet.

Conversely, when the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on 11 March, the first thing to go was the telephone system as it jammed with calls. However, Japan’s Internet was largely unaffected except in the areas directly hit by the tsunami that lost electricity. As a result, a large number of people used Skype and other messaging tools to contact their loved ones. In the days that followed, various social media proved effective in sharing information — Facebook provided disaster related information, while Google launched person-finder and other resources.

For many, social media allowed worried people to keep up with what their friends were doing (by their status on Facebook or Mixi) in order to stay safe, especially as the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant got out of hand.

There were instances where social media was misused to send around incorrect information and the Japanese government on a number of occasions requested that people refrain from spreading chain-mails containing rather scary information (e.g., after a refinery fire outside Tokyo, one message stated that a photochemical smog would descend on the city the next day).

So in terms of our efforts to foster a more resilient, sustainable future, what lessons, if any, can we derive from the almost magical social and political revolution that took place in North Africa, a region thought immune to democratic modernization? What can we learn from Japan about how social media can be used to support people in their hour of need?

This is not a simple story of the success of social media. Despite the eyes of the whole world watching, online climate activists failed to sway those people in charge to change course in the lead-up to the much-anticipated COP15 climate summit on Copenhagen in December 2009.

We can all agree that no matter how many updates get posted on Facebook or tweets get sent from Twitter accounts (nor does it make a difference how committed the viewers of OurWorld 2.0 magazine are to various social and environmental causes) these by themselves cannot reverse the currently poor state of ecological health of our planet’s oceans and other problems confronting our planet. It is also true that a billion tweets are not going to rebuild Japan.

So if we can’t tweet a revolution, to use a line from Gladwell’s article, will we be able to at least ‘poke’ a couple of effective environmental agreements and ‘friend’ a new strategy toward sustainable consumption? Perhaps social media can play a role in organizing Japanese people to help them create their vision of a new, better Japan in the future.

Or maybe Gladwell is right. What social change needs is not social media but social activism. Perhaps we need big, brash, non-violent climate protests. Maybe Japan will eventually need self-sufficient on-the-ground volunteers willing to pitch in on rebuilding.

What do you think? Are you in?

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Debate 2.0: Can Sustainability and Resilience Be Tweeted? by Jacob Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Author

Jacob Park

Associate Professor Green Mountain College

Jacob Park teaches at Green Mountain College in Vermont and is a senior fellow at the Environmental Leadership Program and associate fellow at the Asia Society, among others. E-mail him at .

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  • christopherdoll

    I think this discussion cannot stand alone and needs to be placed in the context of the relationship between social and the mainstream media. Increasingly, organisations like BBC and CNN are turning to social media to generate the news (it is touted as engaging users but is also a cheap way of generating content). The blurring between news and opinion is getting more messy and this I find to be worrisome because it allows for a selective reading of ‘facts’.

    People like to feel part of something larger than themselves but so tweeting about earthquakes and demonstrations for a while may give a signal that there is an revolution happening. But social media is a tool and tools by themselves don’t make you care any more about an issue. I find it hard to see how social media can deliver sustained change in the long term in 140 characters.

  • ~SaRaH~ Edelheimer

    I think it depends on the task at hand as to whether or not the internet and social networking is a positive or a negative.

    On the one hand, as seen in Egypt, Facebook really brought people together to accomplish the task of coming together to overthrow the government. On the other hand, it seems as though sometimes the internet can have a tendency of making people cowards. I say this because people are more than willing sign online petitions regarding important issues, but they may not be willing to go out and physically protest, either due to being scared that no one will show up or perhaps the fear that personal harm may occur. But in the same sense, online petitions can be a good thing for those who are handicapped and unable to physically protest, just as long as the petitions are actually going to who it’s supposed to.

    I think that Facebook, moreso than Twitter can be a useful tool for sustainability. I say this because there are a lot of smart people who hold a lot of knowledge on FB. Once one is networked with said smart person, then perhaps that knowledge can be spread. Instead of “word of mouth” perhaps it’d be “word of status update” although that has not quite the same ring. FB is an excellent tool for spreading knowledge about say, farming or “living green.” All one has to do is ask a question via ‘status update’ and then the answers come rolling in…that is if they’re networked to the right people necessary for the answers they’re looking for…..which is generally easy to do, especially now with the new ‘group’ layouts that FB has.

  • Danielle Field

    I think that Gladwell makes a solid point in his article and that social networks will not always be effective. However, he may now have changed some of his beliefs, seeing how successful facebook was in organizing recent protests. Nothing will beat the power of face to face, community action; however, I do believe that social networks have the potential to create great change. We have seen it already and I do not think that it will stop here. Using facebook, twitter, you-tube, ect, as a means to organize people and get the average individual involved creates a massive bond throughout the world. People don’t need to always be physically there; sometimes the internet is enough to motivate and persuade others. Overall, I think that it is always situational and depending on the instance, social networking may not be enough. For example, with the recent events that took place in Japan, I think that people really need to step up and get out in the streets. The internet can not physically build infrastructure and will never be as powerful as an in-person protest. But there is power in numbers and social networks seem to be the most efficient way to spread information quickly and to the masses.

  • sarah Klaneski

    On March 11th many of my ‘friends’ on Facebook posted their concerns, sorrow and prays for Japan. Many people posted videos of the damage, waves sweeping over towns and news clips. Although in one light, online social networks shared information and compassion, I was distraught on March 15th when people turned their attention to the recent death of Nate Dogg ( A notorious rapper). Although I believe every death should be respected and acknowledged, I found it inappropriate for so many people to distract themselves over the death of one individual as the death toll in Japan neared 9,300 people. The fallowing days people posted less about Japan and went back to their routine Facebook announcements; “ SOOOO hung over UGH”, “ Dunkin donuts= love!”. Even without online social networks people would have still been informed about the crisis in Japan and unfortunately I feel as though events just give people something to talk about momentarily until the next thing happens. Not to say that people do not feel sorrow and compassion for victims in Japan, it is just that perhaps it is more pleasant to focus on other events. For the victims who were able to use the internet as a tool to find loved ones, it is very lucky they were able to do so. It is astounding how able people were able to communicate and in such crisis’s people need that most to locate loved ones and seek help. The internet is a useful tool for that; however people need to show their support with more than just a Facebook posting or clicking something that demonstrates they do hope for the better.

  • Emily Kresky

    I think a balance is essential with the case of the accelerating emergence of the internet as a tool for communication and activism. I think communication and activism are two different things. The internet has proven to be a useful tool for the families of the people in Japan – to find out if they are okay, etc. However, the internet will not fix the underlying problems of why these disasters have been happening. The internet may be a useful social network – serving as a congregation place for people all over the world to brainstorm ideas and strategies, but the internet will not put those strategies into motion – only human contact and physical motivation will do that. People cannot be motivated only by the internet. The incidents in Japan, for instance, needs physical help from humans. Sustainability issues around the world also need physical motivation and projects conducted by people. The internet is good for sharing ideas, but if there are too many ideas floating around the internet, they may not be taken any further.

  • Guy Edwards

    Malcolm Gladwell’s article is now out of date. He quotes one of Clay Shirky’s books on the rise of social media but fails to reference Shirky’s latest book ‘Cognitive Surplus’ published in 2010 on how the internet and social media is changing us from consumers to collaborators and how we are just beginning to harness our free time, generosity and connectedness for constructive causes and projects worldwide. The story of the Ushahidi website and violence in Kenya in 2008 is a prime example.

    It is far too early to tell whether social media will or will not result in social revolutions. Indeed the existence of the internet and the world wide web are products of our sedentary and enclosed lifestyles which are to blame for the rapid decrease in civic participation and organising over the last 40 years or so. If anything social media has the potential re-awaken this civic participation and activism which Gladwell feels is currently unattainable via the internet. This is an experiment currently unfolding and as the Internet continues to reach even the remotest areas only a fool would dismiss its potential for social change at such an early stage.

  • nugoddess

    Read and learn everything you can about Green – not all Green is the same – not all Green is good and in fact Green is sometimes down right sinister.  Better do your homework on the sustainability issue – it sounds too good to be true and you know what that means right?  If it sounds too good to be true it probably is, hello?