Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age

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Allison H. Fine’s Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age is an intriguing exploration of the ways in which new social media technology–including social networking websites, email, cell phones, and the Internet as a whole–can be used to facilitate social change organizing. Unlike the worst proponents of social media, Fine argues that social media has a facilitative role of “connecting” people through social networks for the purpose of creating connections that can be used in real world organizing efforts.

Momentum explores how social change organizing is changing due to social networks becoming increasingly well developed through social media technology. Fine describes how mobilizing these social networks are key to successful social change movements, while explaining what makes these networks successful. Fine asserts that a network is successful because it has hubs of information and leaders that drive the work, while also having a “friction-free” information flow that enables and empowers people in the far reaches of the network. These networks–online variations of traditional networks such as the nuclear family or church groups–grow in power the further out that they extend and the numbers of people that they incorporate. Moreover, their power is enhanced when they not only connect people in a network but also move people to act in a coordinated fashion in the “real world.” The networked world that Fine terms the “Connected Age” emphasizes not only connections and the free-flow of information between the networks, but also communication. Fine argues that the many-to-many nature of communication in a network is more empowering for both members of the network and organizers than the traditional “top-down” methods of organizing because it emphasizes interaction and feedback. Networks for social change must also be “broad and porous,” reaching a wide variety of individuals while also understanding that people will move in and out of networks as their interests shift.

Fine argues that these new technologies will have a profound effect on organizations working on social change issues. Rather than maintaining existing hierarchies where information is provided in a frequently top-down and one-way fashion to constituents, social media offers the potential for information to be distributed in a horizontal fashion through which people throughout an organization–from constituents to staff members–are empowered to organize. Because of this decentralization of power and functioning, Fine asserts that organizations will have to rethink how they measure their effectiveness, especially now that many “connections” made in new social networks are not necessarily quantifiable by traditional means. This shift in how success and effectiveness are measured will also affect funding, with Fine asserting that foundations will have to shift their focus in a manner that recognizes networks rather than top-down entities. Organizations will also begin to recognize the immense potential of the Internet and online networks for fundraising. Such technology makes it possible to raise money quickly and with relatively low cost, while also encouraging funders to embrace new and exciting ventures at what will hopefully be a quicker pace than has been traditionally done by foundations. Fine also makes a brief argument that social media can provide a more interactive substitute to the traditional broadcast media, allowing nonprofits and social change organizations to have access to low-cost distribution channels that in many cases may even be preferred by younger audiences.

Despite its arguments that social change cannot be confined to the digital world and that it must exist separately from the technological tools that give can give it much of its power in the Connected Age, Fine minimizes some of the serious issues regarding race and class that should be at the forefront of this discussion. To her credit, Fine does at least briefly address these issues, which is already more than many proponents of social media have done. Far from simply stating that social media has a “leveling effect” that distributes power, Fine cites examples of how this is done, specifically focusing on how anyone with an internet connection can now start a website, blog, email list, or advocacy campaign. She admits that the so-called “digital divide” through which people have unequal access to digital tools and infrastructure exists, although she argues that it is rapidly closing. Fine asserts that in the case of young people specifically, gaps are closing as social media increases political participation from women, youth, and people of color.

Unfortunately, while a convincing argument can be made to this effect, Fine is guilty of minimizing the ongoing effects of racism in the United States. Fine argues that there is a new generation of technologically savvy youth–whom she calls “Net-Genners”–who are extremely comfortable using social media tools. She describes this generation as “tolerant” and asserts that they are “one of the first generations to grow up in a largely integrated society.” She goes on to state that they are one of the first generations “who spend almost no time thinking about race and ethnicity or sexual preference” and that “they’re just used to being around lots of different people who look different.” This argument is further articulated when she states that this generation is not accustomed to thinking about race and ethnicity “consciously,” which she argues is better than “a generation that is constantly thinking about race and how not to offend.” Fine–to her credit–does express concern over statistics showing that “Net-Genners” are growing up in racially homogenous communities and being educated in similarly structured schools, but she fails to examine the ramifications of this. Nowhere is there a substantive discussion of how social media tools can be used to either challenge or reinforce racism. Similarly, while Fine addresses class to a limited degree when she cites the fact that 75% of Americans have Internet access at home and that the so-called “digital divide” has not been the issue that people thought it would be, she does not address how social media can either reinforce or subvert class-based hierarchies. There is also no exploration of the race and class base of online communities and the extent to which they are integrated.

Despite limits in how it approaches issues of race and class, Fine’s Momentum provides an important look at the “new” activism possible with social media. Fine presents a compelling argument that activists must begin to use these tools. Moreover, Fine does an excellent job of reminding readers and activists that these digital tools are not ends in and of themselves but rather they are tools that can be used to create and enhance “real world” connections that can then be leveraged for social change.

Allison H. Fine, Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, (Jossey-Bass, 2006).

Author: mediamouse

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