Rebooting America

For those who haven’t seen it already, Rebooting America is out. Edited by Allison Fine, Micah Sifry, Andrew Rasiej and Josh Levy, this book contains a collection of essays from a bunch of super awesome folks, including Yochai Benkler, Susan Crawford, Esther Dyson, Newt Gingrich, Craig Newmark, Howard Rheingold, Doug Rushkoff, Clay Shirky, David Weinberger …. and moi. You can download the whole book here or buy it here. If you just want to read my essay, check it out:

Can Social Network Sites Enable Political Action?

This essay complements “Digital Handshakes in Networked Publics: Why Politicians Must Interact, Not Broadcast” from Ben Rigby’s Mobilizing Generations 2.0.

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1 thought on “Rebooting America

  1. Steve


    Read your essay. A few commments.

    First, a minor quibble. You said “…easy to fool people into believing that its structure determines practice.” But, I think the remainder of your essay documents that structure *does* determine practice in this very instance – just not the practice we might prefer. The structure of an SNS, being “friend-oriented” would forseeably increase the already strong tendency for teen social behavior to be driven by peer pressure, desire for peer acceptance, etc. This tendency – “other direction” is at leas as old as the classic David Riesman book of the fifties “The Lonely Crowd”. (The Wikipedia article on this book suggests that other-direction actually begins to dominate as early as the forties.) Arguably SNSs take this to a whole new level.

    In general, I must agree with the overall thrust of the essay. And at the end, you ask exactly the right question.
    “…perhaps we need to focus on the causes of alienation and disillusionment that stop people from participating in communal and civic life.”

    How about – being systematically lied to be social authorities about the world they are growing up in.

    How about – living through a period of social crisis during which social authorities pretend desparately that all is “business as usual”. (Or as in the case of 9/11 “this changes everything” and we must now be willing to destroy our freedom in order to save it.)

    How about – the spectacle of a tedious and bloody war, the stated reasons for which are now generally known to be false, but which goes on interminably anyway.

    How about – an information environment in which anybody who actually seeks the truth about their society is given these three options – the incredibly complex sophistry of the academic apologists of power, the simple-minded disinformation characteristic of populist rumor-mongering and scapegoating, and forget the whole thing in favor of the world of escapist entertainment (And I do not exclude the “socially conscious” musicians, dramatists, etc. who, perhaps unwittingly, perpetrate the cruelest fantasy of all – that criticism – especially loud and obnoxious criticism – is in itself somehow solving the problem.)

    It is well known that entertainment thrives in times of economic crisis (I don’t know if this has been studied for other social crises, such as war). Perhaps having now a ringside seat at the process we can understand why.

    In summary – if you were part of a world which was visibly messed up, and you felt you had no power to change it or even understand it – would you be active?

    I close with a poem of perhaps some relevance to the question – written in the voice of an angry young dude from somewhere in the ‘burbs.

    WHO’S CRAZY (Revised 3/4/04)

    You call me the crazy one
    (While you sit downstairs cleanin’ your gun)
    You can’t understand why I wanta start screamin’
    While you set the alarm to keep out some demon

    You want to give me your diagnosis
    I say it’s you that’s got the psychosis!

    You wanta give me meds cause I’m too restless to sit down
    But you’ll sit still for anything – so who’s really the clown.
    You want to lock me up if I steal from the store
    But you stand and cheer when some fools start a war

    You want to give me your diagnosis
    I say it’s you that’s got the psychosis!

    So who’s crazy really? Is the normal world sane?
    You think the folks that run the show got a working brain?
    You wanta see crazy – hold up the mirror
    Look on the face of your own worst fear

    You say I’m your nightmare? you say I’m what you fear?
    But you were losin’ sleep long before I was here

    So call me crazy, stop and stare,
    Ask me if I even care
    ‘Cause no matter what you say or do
    I’m just happy not bein’ you!


    Oh, and an afterthought. When I was in college, there was a well established body of research on the phenomenon of “opinion leadership” – the 1 in 10 or whatever the ratio who are looked to by the people in their (offline) social networks for guidance as to what to think about the issues of the day. Those who seek to manipulate the world of SNS on behalf of social issues, candidates, etc. might do well to revisit the concept of opinion leadership with an eye to determining how the online environment changes the rules – if it in fact does.

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