Re-wiring the wheel

12 March 2015
12 Mar 2015
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

In the United States, few things are satirized and joked about more than the inability of the national Congress to pass legitimate bills into law. Although the reasoning behind such harsh criticism is questionable, it’s undeniable that something pretty amazing happened the last week of February this year, when the Federal Communications Commission made a ruling to listen to the everyday citizens who spoke out, rather than huge companies and lobbyists that stood against the ruling. They chose to take the power to control Internet traffic away from the broadband Internet companies. In fact, the previous year, a comedic sketch talking about the issue of net neutrality (the topic of the FCC decision) spurred a stream of comments in the FCC website that crashed their servers. As FCC’s chairman Tom Wheeler put it in a public letter, this shows that democracy is well and alive in today’s digital world. But I think it’s doing far more than that. I stand more with TIME’s editor-in-chief Nancy Gibbs, who thought the Internet will finally bring reality closer than ever to our ideal version of democracy. I think the Internet is the key to the world becoming a better democracy, and the answer just might be in the most unlikely of places – social media.

After all, the viral 13-minute video by John Oliver that spurred thousands of comments and crashed FCC’s website started off as a YouTube video. We can also look a little farther back, a significant portion of rallying the efforts behind protests in response to Ferguson was coordinated through social media. And even farther back, as long ago as 2012, YouTube video on Joseph Kony gave rise to a hugely successful campaign and spread the word of the criminal’s story at an unprecedented speed. The fiasco over the picture of the black-and-blue dress that went viral within hours last week was a nice, if not a bit in-your-face, reminder that Internet is first and foremost a way to communicate. And because of the sheer scale of the Internet, people literally have more power and voice online than may be possible outside of it. The number and kinds of interactions that we have daily with the thoughts and words of other people is exploding with the help of social media, and that’s the power that drives the Internet. With it, the metaphorical “social network” between us and our acquaintances become more densely wired, if you will. And this increase in connections between the everyday people of the Internet is what ultimately lead the FCC to shift its courses to make a decision in the favor of the people.

Social media is one of those things that leave a foul taste in the mouths of technophobes, but it’s having impacts both inside and outside of the Internet, by literally changing the way real-life communities function. The traditional model of change and influence, whether through technological innovation, a social movement, or the spread of an idea, was very top-down. Laws passed in the higher courts and tricked down, technology and products were designed and distributed by large-scale companies, and cultural shifts and movements were even more difficult to create. We could call this a wheel-and-spokes model. The center of the wheel represents the companies, governments, and people of influence, and the spokes of the wheel is where the changes trickle down to, into the smaller, individual levels. This model works perfectly if the goal of a community is regulation and control. The court system uses it, by having a hierarchy of courts that head lesser courts. But in a democracy, what we want (hopefully) is quite the opposite – not a tightly regulated, controlled environment, but one that’s open for change and innovative ideas*, and an environment that welcomes new voices. And for that kind of an environment, the wheel-and-spokes is far less than ideal. Fortunately, the Internet, and specifically social media, bridges the gap between what we had and what we need by re-wiring the wheel into a mesh. While keeping the influences of the top-level institutions, social media connects the people together, so rather than having spokes go out from a center, the community more resembles a web or a mesh. And in this environment, it’s the people in the community, not a single power, that can bring about important changes, because in such a densely interconnected community, the voice of a single person can become the voice of the public.

In the last half-decade, the Internet has become a legitimate engine for social innovation. Governments use it for their studies and carrying out new policies**, and activists use it to call attention to important social issues and bring people together to rally with a single idea. And the increasingly dense interconnect between people through the Web has only improved the situation. Even the US government itself has recognized the power of social media and the people who communicate through it, by inviting a few YouTubers this year to the White House after the State of the Union Address to discuss topics that they felt were most important to their audiences. If that’s not a shift of focus in the role of the Internet in government, I don’t know what is.

The men who crossed this bridge…they held no elected office, but they led a nation. - President Obama, in the 50th Anniversary of Selma, March 8, 2015

Last Sunday, the 8th of March, was the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March in Selma, Alabama for voting rights equality. And despite the tremendous progress since then, both technologically and socially, there are still problems to be solved and issues to be confronted. The Internet and the power of the social media in connecting people across nations has amplified the voices of the people, and made stronger the power of those people who demand that our society change for the better. Fifty years ago, average people, albeit with enormous courage, marched in nonviolence for what they believed in, and the country heard their message. But today, technology has made the act of speaking out to the world far more accessible, and far stronger. Rather than thousands or tens of thousands in a city, the people of the Internet command millions, sometimes even hundreds of millions of minds and hearts to a single cause for change. And in just the last few years, this collective voice has been showing a glimpse to the power of the people when they fight with a single goal in mind. Last month’s victory in FCC may have been just another policy shift in itself, but its implications are clear, that the most powerful voices come about when people can connect and act in coordination with each other. And as the Internet grows exponentially to encompass an ever-increasing fraction of the world’s voices, it just might hold the key to bring about the changes that come from the people who truly demand them.

* And just like that, I feel as if I’m writing to the Russian government.

** But that’s not to ignore the most important purpose, to spy on everything and everyone’s business by bending the law***.

*** Sarcasm alert.

Making the maker

The reflection bias

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