Social Media & Aaron Swartz: Governments Should Be Scared Of Their People

History has created structures of control that allow a hierarchy to enforce the rules of society... but what happens when the legacy of that structure becomes the very thing that holds society back from the will of the people. We've seen many examples over the centuries, but never has the frequency of these debates been so rapid than amongst our modern mobile connected social media world. Last Friday news spread of the tragic end to the life of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, confirmed by Swartz’ attorney, Elliot R. Peters of Kecker and Van Nest, in an email to The Tech early Saturday morning.

Aaron's most prominent action was in using the virality of the digital generation to shift the vote in US Congress on the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA. Swartz was later indicted in July 2011 for allegedly downloading millions of documents from JSTOR through the MIT network with the intent to distribute them. (Both JSTOR and MIT had decided to drop the charges, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided to pursue the case.)

[The Internet Will (One Day) Transform Government]

Swartz subsequently moved to New York, where he joined the Avaaz Foundation, a nonprofit “web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.” A cause brilliantly and practically captured by Clay Shirky in his TED Talk "How the Internet will (one day) transform government."

The case against Swartz, which was due to go to trial in April, has been dismissed as a result of Swartz’ death, according to a court document filed Monday morning, as reported by the Boston Globe.

Swartz committed his life to being an enabler of the people's voice in the face of governments attempt to apply current control structures to the digital population. A fictional expression of the people's will over coming the will of those in power can be seen in the 2005 film V for Vendetta. In the film, the main character, V, opposes the oppressive and controlling British government. Which raises an age old debate, forcing the viewer to decide whether V is a freedom fighter or a terrorist.

In V's world, the government has taken all civil liberties from its citizens, allowing them to spy on anyone without warrant at anytime and even establishes a nightly curfew. V claims that the freedoms and liberties the government stands for have become meaningless words.

For the purpose of this article, and the expression of the story, V is an idea, a belief that he can make a difference, something that should not be forgotten. After all, as it is stated in the movie, "V is every one of us."

"V for Vendetta" is a movie that makes viewers think. Is V right in what he is doing? Could the totalitarian rule portrayed in the movie ever exist? Do flavours of it already exist?

Most importantly, it carries the message of political action. It's the unfortunate nature of humans that we don't notice gradual change or subtlety. Hence the use of escalated tactics to capture the attention of the people.

Now please don't think that I am suggesting that escalation, violence and terrorism are appropriate means for a cause. Instead, I am actually suggesting the complete opposite, as violent measures lack a key ingredient that is so important in gaining mass support, virality. Something another political movement got right.

When a series of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa has become known as the "Arab Spring", it was sparked by the first protests that occurred in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, following Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in protest of police corruption and ill treatment(NY Times). The success of the protests in Tunisia, a created wave spread to other countries. The largest, most organised demonstrations have often occurred on a "day of rage", usually Friday afternoon prayers. The protests have also triggered similar unrest outside the region.

The Arab spring is widely believed to have been instigated by dissatisfaction with the rule of local governments, though some have speculated that wide gaps in income levels may have had a hand as well. Numerous factors have led to the protests, including issues such as dictatorship or absolute monarchy, human rights violations, government corruption, economic decline, unemployment, extreme poverty, and a number of demographic structural factors, such as a large percentage of educated but dissatisfied youth within the population.

The importance of virality and social media on the Arab uprisings has been largely debated. With a majority saying that social media was the main instigator and tool of the uprisings. Either way, the perception of social media has changed; its role in the uprisings has demonstrated to the world its power. Nine out of ten Egyptians and Tunisians responded to a poll that they used Facebook to organize protests and spread awareness.

This influx of social media usage indicates the kind of people who were essentially powering the Arab Spring. Young people fuelled the revolts of the various Arab countries by using the new generation's abilities of social networking to release the word of uprising to not only other Arab nations, but nations all over the world. As of April 2011, the amount of Facebook users in the Arabian nations surpassed 27.7 million people, indicating that the constant growth of people connected via social media acted as an asset where communication was concerned.

What this highlights is the velocity and virality of an idea in today's mobile connected world, social tolls like Facebook and Twitter become key enablers. A viral idea is an infectious idea which makes that jump quickly and often.

What makes an infectious idea go viral boils down to three aspects — The MessageThe Messenger, and The Network — and how they work together.

First, The Message needs to be sticky. I chose to make my message — elephants — sticky by making it unexpected. Elephants aren’t rare, but elephants in top hats are. You can read more about sticky messages in the Heath Brothers’ Made to Stick.

Second, The Messenger needs to be informed, engaging, and connected. A maven, an expert in her field, is well-informed on a subject and can often speak technically about it at great depth. A salesman, a person with the ability to pitch, doesn’t know the material but knows the audience. Salesmen can sell the maven’s idea to the masses. A connector, a well networked person, doesn’t know the product or the pitch but knows the people. Connectors know everyone and aren’t afraid to start the conversations. The Messenger can be one individual or in a group, so long as the message is well-informed, simplified for consumption, and in the hands of a connected individual. You can read more about connectors, mavens, and salesmen in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.

Tipping Point

Finally, The Network needs to give good context to The Message. A blog post about virality is more likely to be interesting to a group of social media marketers than it is to be interesting to a group of missionaries in Bangladesh. Choosing the right network, and what’s more, the right time in the right network, has a huge impact on the virality of a message.

Swartz became a key messenger, or in Gladwell's definition, the Maven, when he passionately pursued the slowing of Congress' vote on SOPA/PIPA, buying time for the virality of the idea to kick through 'The Network' or Connectors. Thus resulting in enough viral scale for the idea, that they shifted the balanced of votes from a majority Yes, to a majority No, on passing SOPA.

What each of the stories illustrate and validate, is that traditional control structures are at threat as the 'will of the people' can be scaled rapidly, building enough momentum to over through the will of those in power. So in a connected world, governments should be scared of their people. And the possibility of crowd sourced public policy shouldn't be too far away. We've seen similar transformations in other segments, such as music, movies, books and content, which resulted in the traditional structures being completely dumped as they fail to embrace the behaviour and will of the consumer. Something traditional retail and consumer are facing in the next five years.

So far the victims of transformation are:

Rest in peace Aaron... Gen Y is embracing your vision