Tina Rosenberg has a great piece — Friends in Revolution — in which she discusses her skepticism about the power of internet-based social networks to be agents for political change in the absence of real social ties. She highlights that a new tool, Friendfactor, combined social media with real friendships in the campaign for gay marriage. She highlights that the notion of a Twitter Revolution in Iran and the role of Facebook in Egypt may have been overplayed (though she doesn’t provide concrete evidence of this…)
All of this sounds right to me. I share her skepticism that people are going to risk their lives in protest simply because others in an online community have said they would do the same. One needs to feel some type of fundamental personal attachment to at least a few other people who are personally known and trusted before making such sacrifices. Of course, real friendships and connections may be initiated and developed online, but the types of links that inspire personal sacrifice are rarely made instantaneously. Before we take for granted the “power” of facebook and other forms of social media, we should consider the extent to which the most prominent examples — Tahir square, etc — were rooted in networks of more private and analog connections between people.