In an echo of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 “the revolution will not be tweeted”, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci unveiled at TEDGlobal 2014 in Rio de Janeiro last week her thesis that when it comes to using social media to affect lasting change, achievements are not proportional to the energy they inspire. This is a lesson entrepreneurs ignore at their peril.
Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina and opened Session 2 at this year’s TED Global in Brazil. Session 2 set out to explore the dichotomy between the opportunities that technology offers us, such as affecting social change; and its dangers, such as how it compromises our privacy.
While many pointed to the Arab Spring as proof that Gladwell was wrong, Tufekci brought a different lens of reality to the belief that social media can topple governments. Just because it is “easier to mobilise does not mean it is easier to get outcomes,” she said. To illustrate her point, while alluding to the Arab Spring and set against the backdrop of the withering efforts in Hong Kong today, Tufekci pointed to the Occupy Movement which she said has not delivered on any of its promises despite its worldwide appeal.
This isn’t to say that these viral movements are not valid. The lesson of the Arab Spring uprisings during 2011 was that while the censored media was impotent amid government atrocities, Social Media was able to blow the lid on it. While “editors sat in their newsrooms and waited for the government to tell them what to do,” activists in Iran, Egypt and Libya were able to use Social Media to collect images of police brutality and violence and get them out to the world’s media via Facebook and Instagram with the use of just a mobile phone. Organisers could mobilise many thousands of demonstrators at just the click of a Tweet-button. The role of modern technology in these historic phenomena should not be under-estimated, but as the rapid dispersion of crowds in Hong Kong this week proves, “all these good intentions and bravery and sacrifice by themselves are not going to be enough” says Tufekci.
By way of contrast, she looked back at the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the US. Following the arrest of Rosa Parks in Alabama in 1955, supporters mimeographed 52,000 leaflets and distributed them by hand – an effort unfathomable today given our powerful social media technologies, let alone the far more prolific printing technologies available to everyone. While a gargantuan effort, the key lesson Tufekci highlighted was that the activists met face-to-face and bonded. “They created the kind of organization that could think together, create consensus, innovate, keep going together through differences.”
And here is the punchline: “Are we overlooking some of the benefits of doing things the hard way?” she asks.
What does this mean for entrepreneurs and startups looking to quickly create growth to attract investors. Tufekci’s lesson is beautiful in its simplicity: “todays movements feel like startups that get very big quickly”.
Essentially the ability to create the appearance of scale at great speed using powerful communication techniques can be deceptive. Unless startups are able to create sustainability beneath that, they have essentially taken the easy road to what looks and feels like success but ultimately is not enduring and can quickly dwindle. The ‘hard yakka’ of Rosa Parks’ supporters bonded them tightly in an endeavour to which they became deeply dedicated.
The experience of Groupon perhaps exemplifies Tufekci’s message. In 2011 the darling of the group-buying revolution declined a USD$6 Billion acquisition offer from Google before its IPO debut at USD$20. Today, its share price is just USD $6 and its market capitalisation is USD$2 billion less than the Google offer its now much-maligned CEO Andrew Mason snubbed. Most commentators agree Groupon’s mistake was to focus on rapid new customer acquisition rather than sustainable customer retention. In building a lasting business – just as with affecting permanent social change – it is important to take the long view. The apparent might of social media to collect a huge audience can be a dangerous mirage. As Tufecki warns: “the way technology empowers social movements can paradoxically weaken them.”