Social media, the Internet and new possibilities for social change

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The brand new Academy of the Impossible nestles (huddles, coils?) in a low-rise strip of commercial real estate in Toronto's west end among other small, well-meaning enterprises. The space is bare, the acoustics are problematic, but it's already well-wired for Internet activity: social media, gaming etc. It plans to take a step beyond hacktivism toward the integration of online agitation with direct action in the streets, that the Occupy movements have embodied.

Jesse Hirsh, who started it along with Emily Pohl-Weary and their pals, says during the 1990s, advocates of cyberspace like Nicholas Negroponte and Wired magazine implied that political upheavals in the future would transpire via virtual arenas. It hasn't gone that way. Solid human bodies were crucial during both the Arab Spring and the Occupations, and people show up in person at the academy. They don't just log on. Last week they invited me for a session to compare social movements in the 1960s to those today -- a tempting topic.

But that's not what I want to describe. Jesse and I sat on a raised platform in front of a dense group in a fairly narrow space. Almost all had their smartphones, tablets or laptops out. And even before we began punditizing, tweets were appearing on the still-bare concrete walls around us. The first one I noticed, said: "Salutin has a really interesting sock-shoe combination going on."

That would be my Achilles socks with the sombrero motif and my New Balance, swirly, crosshatchy runners. Believe me, it was distracting, though it's exactly what gets discussed when you sit in an audience at one of these events and whisper to the person beside you. The tweets kept coming as we swung into gear, most of them on-topic, agreeing, disputing or adding points, along with web pages, headlines and so forth, run by one of the academy associates.

The effect was transformative. I've always felt uneasy in those situations: Sitting above, talking down, to passive listeners, even if they get to ask questions later. It establishes a hierarchy of authority and contradicts whatever I believe about democracy: that wisdom emerges from collective deliberation, it doesn't pre-exist in select individuals. You can try various modifications: sit in a circle, give everyone equal time, or whine about the dynamic -- which just tends to make you sound self-congratulatory: having your cake while denouncing it.

But those projections altered everything. People didn't wait like sheep to speak out. Yet they weren't disruptive. It was a genuine, attentive, simultaneous conversation, which took getting used to. It meant I couldn't settle easily into a familiar chain of thought, calling up things I'd said before, because I'd be interrupted by a challenge or verbal nudge that took me in another direction.

About halfway, someone tweeted, "Salutin just dropped the first f-bomb of the night." I caught it out of the corner of my eye, which gaped wider. It wasn't derisive; it was more bemused, a kind of observation about a different historical context and vocabulary. Leftists of my era dropped f-bombs as if it was normal and even politically significant; the Internet/Occupy generation don't, but they find it noteworthy and entertaining. I'd pay for a lesson in awareness like that.

Now let me generalize pompously to what this may show about new possibilities for creating social change.

The models for major change over the past two centuries were Revolution versus Reform. Either overthrow and destroy what was in place -- the ancient regime, capitalism etc. -- replacing them with something new. Or reform those institutions, nibbling away at them till you've gradually reconstructed them. You see the mindset persisting in education: either get rid of schools as they are and replace them with free schools, home schooling and the like -- or reform what's there until it vanishes.

But tweet night did neither. It left all the appalling old structures exactly as they were: the podium, the stodgy agenda (presentation followed by Q and A). Yet it remade them simply by inserting a layer: the Internet. Nothing changed but everything was different due to that insertion. It's radical, in the sense of transformative, yet conservative, in the sense of preservative. And it worked.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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