Zeynep Tufekci gave an insightful analysis on the role of social media in civic activism in her piece “The #freemona Perfect Storm: Dissent and the Networked Public Sphere”. Her take on social media and equality was that “social media works for prominent people better (rich get richer).” She demonstrated her point through the jailing and subsequent freeing of Egyptian-American writer Mona El Tahawy. Because El Tahawy was a tech-savvy, well connected and well-liked writer, her imprisonment generated a social media storm that led to speedy collaborations of various influential stakeholders, including the US State Department to free her. Tufekci pointed out that social media, like most new tools, can differentially empower the already connected as opposed to the completely or weakly unconnected.
I agree that social media perpetuates existing social inequality. It rewards people who are already well connected, and “well connected” are defined as both having a large network of weak ties or a small network of strong ties but with influential relationships. Social media harnesses the power of weak ties more efficiently and increases the speed of information exchange even within strong ties, therefore it allows the already well-connected minority (usually the rich, to Tufekci’s point) to be even better connected and to achieve their objectives faster, easier and potentially cheaper.
I would push even further and argue that social media exacerbates social inequality by creating a new type of “haves” and “have-nots”, and that is those who are tech savvy and those who aren’t. In “Here Comes Everybody”, Clay Shirky gave an excellent example of how online tools differentially served the new “haves”: how a tech savvy person managed to create incredible online momentum to pressure NYPD to help retrieve his friend’s stolen cellphone. Lost and stolen cellphones are trivial events to many, but because of his skills in using online tools, the protagonist Bryan was able to get his friend’s cellphone back. On the other hand, the less tech-savvy teenager, the new “have-nots” who picked up Bryan’s friend’s cellphone ended up being arrested. Jaron Lanier also argued the same point in his piece “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of Wikileaks.” Tech-savvy hackers, the new “haves” can increase their powers through their knowledge of online technology, and impact the offline world in a never-before powerful way. We also discussed in class about the power of technology companies such as Google and Facebook, and it is a legitimate concern that the power gap between the new “haves”, powerful tech companies and technology guardians, and the new “have-nots”, ordinary citizens and technology consumers are increasing, and that the new “haves” are increasingly influencing us in all aspects of life.
I think that we should be worried. We understand the old kind of social inequality a lot better, and have structural ways to fight it. The old kind of inequality is in our daily public discourse, and we invest as a society in various resources to address it. But we understand the new kind of inequality very little, few are even aware that it exists, and that is why I think that we should be very worried.