Reddit and the possible awakening of the 'social web'

Steven Hodson

For as long as people have been using the term social media as some sort of movement that utilizes the web for social change I have cringed and shuddered to the very bone because nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is that social media is just a cutesy way to say social marketing because that is that social media is - a new way to market to a large number of people while providing them with the illusion that they have friends, thousands or more of them, that care what they think or like. It's a great con but a con none the less and propagated by social networks like Facebook, whose only purpose is to get you to believe that it is okay to share absolutely everything about your minute to minute life because that is what all your friends want to know.

Well them and the companies that flock to services like Facebook because they are being lead to believe that this is the next great frontier and if they don't stake t heir claim then they are old and tired and no-one will care about them.

If you ask any of the people that know me, beyond just the surface crap that floats around on the various social networks that I suffer being a part of, they will tell you that I have an extremely low opinion of social media; and I do. I truly do.

What I do believe in though is the social web; which is as different from social media as night is from day. The social web is about using the tools and technology that have been created, and are being created daily, to enable us to change our lives and our society for the better, not to be a part of just another marketing campaign that benefits no-one.

The social web in some ways is the polar opposite of social media. Where social media is about marketing, promotion and appeasement the social web is about the people, our society as a whole, and the betterment of both those things.

Except that we have become enamored with all things social media after all it provides us with the self-gratification that we are important, that we can make some faceless corporation listen to us, or so we believe. Sure we've been given a common ground and a louder voice when it comes to dealing with the powers that be, corporate or government but the driving force behind it all is me-ism and corporate bottom line.

The result is that we have successfully been side tracked from a much more powerful platform for real change - the social web. Instead of thinking of services like Facebook and Twitter as the vehicle by which we can force companies to listen to us as individuals, while those services profit enormously, we need to treat them as tools, as vehicles for change.

This is the part that Arab Spring got right. It is this concept of Twitter, Facebook, and other networks as tools for change rather than self-promotion that made them such a valuable tool to those countries, and still do.

We on the other hand are still stuck with the idea that social media is the game changer, which it isn't; but that could be changing. There is a glimmer, just a glimmer mind you that we are finally understanding that if we really want to make changes to a society that is stacked against us we need to stop thinking and acting like everything is about us as separate entities - we aren't.

There's an old saying - united we stand, divided we fall and for the most part social media is all about the individual, promoting the individual and not about society as a whole; which is exactly what we are. This is the secret that Arab Spring holds and to a certain extend even the OccupyWallStreet movement does. This isn't what the companies and government want but this is exactly what the social web can give us - a unified front with which we can bring about change.

The problem is that for all intents and purposes the OccupyWallStreet movement has been successfully marginalized, and in a very calculated manner, and as a result the social web is voiceless.

When we talk about using the web to bring about change many people like to point to groups like Anonymous as being the voice of change. The only problem with that is, that like OccupyWallStreet groups like Anonymous are easily ridiculed and marginalized, something that they don't help with due to their actions.

So where is the voice of the social web?

Is there one?

I would say yes there is and as I said earlier we are starting to see a real glimmer of the possibility of the social web coming to life. We first saw I believe when Bank of America announced that they were going to start charging their customers a service fee to use their debit cards. The reaction was palpable and swift much to the surprise of everyone as it swept through powered by the use of the web.

In the end the banks backed down, the consumer won and we knew it.

Then along comes SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and once more the winds of social unrest could be heard gather in the halls of the Web. From the people who helped create the web to those that earn their living because of the web everyone came out against what was, and still is, a bad idea that the entertainment industry paid Congress wanted to pass.

It was only because of the web and sites like Reddit that SOPA has been forestalled, not beaten, just delayed so the battle isn't totally over yet; but something fundamental is changing.

Up until recently the "Internet" has been some intangible type thing for most people, and I mean none techie type people. It was just something out there that we went to in order to entertain ourselves, maybe buy some goods, or for others do some work.

Those of us in the tech industry know it is much more than that. It has become the very backbone of our world with nothing we do on a daily basis not being touched by the Web in some fashion or other.

But that feeling, that knowledge, that realization of just how important the Internet; a free and open Internet, is to our society has reached past just the techies and now larger number of 'ordinary' (non-techie) people are realizing its importance.

They are realizing that the Web is changing their lives like nothing else ever has and it is empowering them in ways that they've never been empowered before; and once they look past the shallowness of the social media shell game they are realizing that for the first time in human history they have the power and the voice to change society.

The balance of power is shifting. The social web is starting to coalesce. The only problem is that like those that were the founding voices of the Arab Spring we need our own voice of the social web and I believe we might be seeing it develop on sites like Reddit.

I say this because I think that the Reddit community itself is just realizing the amount of power it has to organize social change. The community first began to see the glimmer of its potential with the whole SOPA and GoDaddy situation and now it is stretching its muscles by looking to be come the voice of social change by holding politician accountable for their actions.

In this case they are organizing to pinpoint politician from both parties that are benefiting from support both SOPA and NDAA, and through the community apply pressure to those politicians to change their stance or face serious opposition when they seek re-election.

This isn't something that Reddit has done before, or at least of this scale or this socially oriented. It's one thing to have secret Santas or other such warm and fuzzy events that gets the Reddit community motivated. It is another thing altogether to organize on the level to be able to challenge political figures and policy.

Do I think that Reddit will be successful in forcing real change on a government policy level? I don't know. I hope so, I really do but as with all young movements and voices that are just discovering their own power the road forward will be hard and will have its share of failures, but in the long run we have been surprised by far less efforts.

As Mike Masnick at Techdirt wrote:

It'll definitely be tough to unseat incumbents, but even if the internet community can make it into an actual fight, politicians will start to take notice. And, even if it fails this time around, watch out for what comes next. Like many "open" systems, the first version may not be pretty, the second version may be a little buggy, but once you get around to the third version and beyond, they often start being a lot more powerful than anyone expects. Politicians who underestimate the community of folks at Reddit and similar sites may be in for a surprise before too long...

I hope we are seeing the beginnings of a social web, I really do because if it does take hold I believe we will see change like we have never seen before. So yes I am hopeful that the social web is awakening and that sites like Reddit are helping to bring it to life.

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