The human being is a social animal, as the saying goes. While that is undoubtedly true, it has become something of a cliché. Everyone knows that we’re social animals, so why do we have to talk and write about it?
Well, the notion is worth revisiting because with changes in society come changes in the way humans express their collective penchant for being social. Whether it’s hunter-gatherers forming groups to tackle large game or social activists organizing a revolution, it’s clear that we achieve more together than we do individually.
In chapter one of his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky explores the implications of what starts as a rather mundane set of circumstances. In short, a woman loses her phone in a New York City cab, sends text messages to it offering a reward for its return, and after failing to receive a reply, resolves just to buy another phone. Since her new phone’s service is linked to that of her old one through the company’s server, she discovers that it’s being used by a teenager to take pictures and email them around to friends. Great news right? Just email the teenager and have her return the phone. End of story. Not exactly. The teenager vehemently refuses, using offensive racial slurs and displaying generally unacceptable behavior. The woman then seeks the help of a friend who uses his personal website as a platform to raise awareness about the issue, attracting the comments and suggestions of thousands of people, convincing the police to treat it as theft rather than lost property, and ultimately getting the phone back.
Okay, that took a bit longer than I thought it might, but the point is that the Web is a powerful tool for quickly forming large groups that can accomplish what one or two people could never achieve. The ubiquity of the internet makes it possible for individuals to organize grassroots uprisings more easily than ever before. Granted getting back a lost phone is not a grand social cause, but it does illustrate the potential for Web-based organizing.
Though the phone finding case took place in May and June of 2006, the internet would play a crucial role in grand social causes by December of 2010. The Arab spring uprisings that began in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, all relied to a certain degree on the organizational power of the internet and social networking sites. While it may seem outdated to think and write about humans as social animals, the concept certainly gains more currency in light of the organizing capability the internet offers.