The recent Arab Spring revolutions and Occupy Wall Street protests have showed that social media, in particular Twitter and Facebook, have changed the way that power is structured in our society, doing more to democratize and decentralize it.
According to 92Y’s executive deputy director Henry Timms, this is “upload power,” or power that flows upward and benefits as many people as possible. This is opposed to the older paradigm of “download power,” which came down from a small group it benefited.
However, it isn’t just politics where this is making a difference. As the recent uproar over Ocean Marketing shows, businesses are feeling the impact as well. Any entity that is used to being in a position of unidirectional power over others — whether it be a government, a corporation, or a celebrity — can fall victim to the pitfalls of this new era.
The power structure of the entire world is changing and social media is playing a crucial role. But while it remains to be seen who the winners and losers of this transition are, it will likely be based mostly on those who are capable of working within both worlds successfully.
A Catalyst for Change
In truth, it isn’t the location of the power that is changing. The bulk of global power has always rested in the masses. The problem has always been that the energy and time needed to activate that power, whether to start a revolution, organize a boycott, etc. has always been very high.
This has meant that, though the people have always had the power, using it has been difficult and required a great deal of effort. Though even the largest corporation is powerless against the might of the mob, getting the mob unified enough to bring about change has been almost impossible and usually required some other form of top-down structure.
However, social media makes it easy for the masses to spread information, exchange ideas, and coordinate with each other in a truly peer-to-peer way. The amount of energy, effort and time required to activate the power held by the populace has been diminished greatly by social media and it is being further reduced.
This is why Timms calls social media a “catalyst”; it’s something that makes the reaction easier and more powerful even though it’s not really part of the reaction itself.
In short, it’s a power shift that has been enabled by social media, but not created by it.
Surviving the Shift
As the impact of social media is being felt, the traditional measures of power, including money, fame, manpower, etc. are mattering less and less. Even the most powerful person or organization is humbled by what social media has the potential to bring against them.
However, this isn’t to say that they aren’t important at all. Governments, obviously, are important businesses and still command a lot of power, and celebrities still have a powerful audience. Though the power is eroding, it is still strong.
For the foreseeable future, we are going to be in something of a hybrid power climate, one where both “upload” and “download” power is important. Those who wish to seek out influence will have to have both kinds of power to thrive and use them well to support one another.
For example, a musician who uses social media to get heard but doesn’t use their celebrity status to build a traditional audience will likely not last long. Likewise, if they fail to turn their audience into part of their social media sphere, they likely won’t capture them for more than a few shows.
The same is true for businesses and governments as well. Any organization that seeks to improve its position and strength needs to focus on harnessing both kinds of power and using them to feed each other.
However, missteps in this area can do more harm than good. For example, a poorly thought-out social media campaign can turn many people against you. It’s important to remember that social media is very similar to traditional power structures in that it is a long-term game, one where you often have to make short-term sacrifices for long-term growth.
Because of this, it’s crucial that your efforts be organic and genuine because, if they aren’t, they will be discovered and social media does not like feeling deceived. As such, it’s important to actually be a force for more than your own self-interests and to use whatever power you do gain responsibly.
Failure to do so will result in your social media working to divert time, attention and other resources to more worthy causes.
In the end, the people who are going to do best with this shift are the people who can walk in both worlds well. However, it isn’t about celebrities with the most Twitter followers or governments with the largest social media armies; it’s about who can integrate the two kinds of power the best.
For the bigger picture, this means that the balance of power has shifted at least in a small way thanks to social media. Though the masses have always had the ability to check and balance other powerful entities, the ease with which that power can be wielded when necessary makes it a much more powerful force.
The impact that this is going to have on governments, businesses, and celebrities is just now beginning to be seen but it is important to remember that this power is like any other and can be used for good and bad reasons. Just because it’s held by the masses does not mean it cannot be misdirected or do bad things.
The hope, instead, is that “upload” power will be, for the most part, better used than “download” power even though only time will tell if that’s the case.
CC licensed Flickr photo by david_shankbone