Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a sober assessment of online activism, in New Yorker magazine of October 4 (see http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all).
Gladwell argues that Online Social Networking is less effective than some would have us believe, for several reasons, including the historical lesson that protest movements are best marshalled via strict hierarchies, not loose networks.
I reckon there’s another factor that exaggerates the efficacy of Online Social Networking, and more generally undermines privacy and security online. A sort of suspension of disbelief helps to animate cyberspace. The cues we receive online are unreliable, and our responses unnatural. The medium itself is a huge problem. Until the advent of blogs, user generated content and social media, the online experience was passive, not much different from watching cartoon shows on TV. Web 1.0 was unreal; almost anything goes. Just as the Roadrunner defies gravity in besting Coyote, there are no laws of physics to moderate how we careen though cyberspace. The loss of one’s bearings online is the root of much cybercrime, and the lack of friction (both physical and social) kills privacy.
But it’s much worse now that Web 2.0 is interactive. As with a professional magic show, audience participation creates compelling mental expectations and amplifies the illusion. The twits are having an increasingly unreal time, smug in an oddly pre-Copernican theatre that places each of them at the centre of the universe.