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Communications of the ACM


Beyond Viral

Beyond Viral, illustration

Credit: Twitter

The golden age of social media coincides with a worldwide leadership crisis, manifested by our seeming inability to address any major global issue in recent years.32 These days, no one—be they a charismatic leader or a nameless crowd—seems to be able to make issues popular for long enough to mobilize society into action. As a result of this leadership vacuum, social progress of all sorts seems to have become stymied and frozen. How can this happen precisely in a time when social media, praised as the ultimate tool to raise collective awareness and mobilize society, has reached maturity and widespread use? Here, we argue the coexistence of social media technologies with 'The End of Power'18 is anything but a coincidence, presenting the first techno-social paradox of the 21st century.

In recent years, we have witnessed social media playing a major role in social mobilization events of historic proportions, such as the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Ukraine's Euromaidan, and the chaos generated by the England Riots and Boston Marathon bombing manhunt. There has been substantial emphasis on the role of digital social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, as the facilitators of these mobilizations. Data availability has made it possible, for the first time, to observe the evolution of these events in detail.10,11,13,33 Analysis of these events makes it clear that political activists find it difficult to use social media to create mass mobilization; and even when they succeed it is difficult to sustain the focus of the protest until it is able to mobilize politicians, institutions, and society at large. As a result, most of these events burst upon the scene, occupy our attention for a few days, and then fade into oblivion with nothing substantial having been accomplished. Given all we have learned about social mobilization, why isn't social media a more reliable channel for constructive social change?


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