There has been great debate about the abilities of ordinary citizens in affecting change in society. Whereas professional journalists used to dominate mainstream media, ordinary citizens have gradually participated in journalism and provided different perspectives to popular causes. In effort to not only add their cents but also stir public discourse, ordinary citizens often utilize social media, which has gradually become an integral part of society. As part of the “Doubt” camp, authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Matthew Hindman believe ordinary citizens fall short in affecting change and doubt the effectiveness of social media to influence society in the long run. Gladwell and Hindman believe that ordinary citizens, in comparison to professional journalists, fail to produce immediate change. Authors like Clay Shirky and Zeynep Tufecki are part of the camp titled “Potential” for they recognize ordinary citizens’ motive to spread important information through social networking and help develop people’s perspectives. They both commend social media for being tools of which ordinary citizens take advantage in order to affect change. On the other hand, Axel Bruns and Katie King are part of the “Collaboration” camp, arguing that collaboration between professional journalists and ordinary citizens would be better off in collaboration in influencing society. Unlike the authors of the other two camps, Bruns and King believe ordinary citizens and professional journalists complement each other and by working together, they will instill change with long-term benefits. This debate ultimately decides whether social media is truly a worthy and important part of shaping society or whether it is given too much credit and overvalued.
Pointing out the lack of power and influence of ordinary citizens, Matthew Hindman in his exerpt, “Blogs” The New Elite Media,” displays doubt in the ability of ordinary citizens to affect change in society. Hindman focuses on the emerging popularity of blogging, which were assumed to empower ordinary citizens in allowing them to voice their opinions and expand their viewers’ perspectives. Hindman notes that some people have favored the work of ordinary citizens over that of professional journalists (Hindman 102). Explicitly stating that this belief is mistaken, Hindman examines the people behind the blogs and those reading the blogs. By comparing the people behind and in front of the computer or phone screen, Hindman is able to conclude that ordinary citizens have not made enough advances to overpower professionals. In 2002, a Pew survey identified only three percent of Internet users as bloggers whereas in 2004, the percentage increased to twenty-seven percent (104). Despite the increase in participation of blogging, Hindman questions if blogging has any influence on society. Many expressed disgust about blogging by ordinary citizens for their lack of accuracy and credibility. After studying the top ten political A-list bloggers, Hindman reveals that the list consists of highly educated and successful people, many of whom were former or current professional journalists. In addition, most of the top ten bloggers attended elite institutions of higher education as well as receiving a JD or PhD (117). Although most people picture bloggers as “a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing (Colford 2004), the most popular and successful bloggers happen to be part of the elite. Hindman states, “The top bloggers have more education, from more prestigious schools, than do most journalists or most members of the public (122).” Hindman defies people’s expectations that ordinary citizens dominated blogging and social media. While anyone could start a blog, those who maintain blogs that become widely read and popular are not ordinary citizens but elites or professionals. Although people would like to believe that ordinary citizens have greater influence on politics through blogging, Hindman argues that ordinary citizens simply lack the skills and audience to be as affective as professionals. Therefore, he is doubtful of the ability of ordinary citizens to influence society and produce change.
Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell expresses uncertainty in the influence of ordinary citizens. In his article, “Small Change,” Gladwell analyzes the social media’s role in activism. Recognizing Twitter and Facebook as two of the most popular social networking sites, Gladwell acknowledges that social media makes it easier for people to communicate and discuss their opinions about political concerns. Gladwell mentions former national security adviser, Mark Pfeifle who, in discussion about the student protests in Tehran, believed Twitter empowered people to stand up for freedom and democracy (Gladwell 44). In response, Gladwell argues that social media are built around weak ties and as a result, does not affect immediate change. As sociologist Mark Granovetter states, weak ties has strengths for the acquaintances from Twitter and Facebook become “our greatest source of new ideas and information (45).” However, the weak ties of social networks are characterized by no single central authority or structured goals and therefore, activism by ordinary citizens through social media is prone to conflict and error. Although social media increases participation, it does not ensure successful activism. With no hierarchical organization, social media may seem like a good tool for activism but Gladwell argues that ordinary citizens are unable to affect the change they seek. He doubts the long-term effectiveness of social media and disapproves of ordinary citizens’ goal of utilizing social media for activism.
At the other side of the spectrum, Zeynep Tufekci and Clay Shirky are part of the “Potential” camp which believes ordinary citizens do have the power of affecting change. Using social media as a tool to produce this change, ordinary citizens are able to influence society and prove to be credible as much as professional journalists are. Tufekci describes authoritarian regimes such as those of Egypt and Libya. Despite the fact that they were unpopular, the rulers of these regimes had maintained power for several years through censorship and isolation of protests. Explicating threats of torture and imprisonment in the case of a revolt, both regimes successfully censured their citizens so that they were unable to speak up about collective action problems. Tufekci states, “Collective action problems arise when a problem can be solved only through cooperation by many but when there are strong disincentives for any one individual to participate, especially if victory is not guaranteed (Tufekci 1).” While afraid to speak out in public about their opinions for fear of violating social norms, people from these corrupt nations turn to social media as a way of discussing their viewpoints. Therefore, Tufekci explains that social media is a powerful tool to address the collective action problems and for social change concerning these issues. Ordinary citizens, who would otherwise be afraid to voice their opinions, utilize social media to provide their input about politics in hopes of stirring discussion and possibly forming a solution.
Likewise, Clay Shirky has faith in ordinary citizens’ goal of affecting change in society through the powerful tool of social media. Shirky focuses on the development of a public sphere for he believes it is no longer enough to have freedom to the Internet. Shirky believes social media helps coordinate political movements such as the 2004 ousting of Spanish Prime Minster Jose Maria Aznar, in which ordinary citizens organized demonstrations through the usage of text messaging. Although many government authorities focus on the freedom to access information, Shirky shifts the focus to freedom of citizens to converse with one another. Shirky states, “Authoritarian governments stifle communication among their citizens because they fear, correctly, that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight (Shirky 4). The power of discuss among citizens through social media could produce positive change and development of a strong public sphere. Shirky explicitly argues that social media alone does not affect change. As stated by sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfield, there is a two-step process in changing people’s minds. They say, “Opinions are first transmitted by the media and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues (Shirky 6).” In the second step, social media plays a significant role in forming political opinions, allowing people to express and debate their views. Shirky points out several cases during which ordinary citizens were able to take advantage of social media as a tool to produce change.
In the last camp called “Collaboration,” Axel Bruns introduces the idea of collaboration between ordinary citizens and professional journalists. Although they are considered polar opposites, Bruns believes the two could complement each other in creating a revolutionary process called pro-am journalism. Ordinary citizens “focus on providing opinion, commentary and evaluation of currentl events, rather than reporting these events first hand (Bruns 133).” Without the credibility and resources of professional journalists, ordinary citizens fail to be taken seriously. On the other hand, professional journalists are considered too rigid in their distribution of news, only publishing news that is “fit to print (134).” These respective downfalls prevent either group to reach a larger audience and make an impact on society. Pro-am journalism allows continual development of news stories and open participation from ordinary citizens while maintaining credibility and accuracy. Readers are gradually demanding access to professionally produced news reports that also allow open discussion about the issue. Pro-am journalism, which allows collaboration between ordinary citizens and professional journalists, encourages diverse views and community work in effort to create public discourse that would eventually lead to plans for change. With the best of both worlds, pro-am journalism could be the solution to making effective, efficient, and lasting change in society.
These authors bring into question whether ordinary citizens have the ability to affect change in society. Gladwell and Hindman encompass the camp titled “Doubt” for they express concern with the inability of ordinary citizens to produce change. Although they acknowledge that ordinary citizens have taken upon themselves to be more active in society and politics, Galdwell and Hindman lack faith in their ability to be the driving force behind change. On the other hand, Shirky and Tufekci express hope in the potential of ordinary citizens who are able to use social media as a tool to share and discuss opinions in effort to organize demonstrations and structure plans for change. As illustrated in several movements throughout history, social media plays a key role in affecting change. Finally, Axel Bruns combines the advantages of both ordinary citizens and professional journalists in hopes of creating pro-am journalism with each group making up for the weaknesses of the other. With the growing participation of ordinary citizens and always constant reliability of professional journalism, Bruns argues pro-am journalism would be most effective in activism. No longer completely dependent on professional journalists, ordinary citizens have proven their ability to provide input and aid in producing change.