Is the Internet Effective for Instigating Social Change?

I  concur with Zeynep Tufekci’s argument that Internet instigated movements are easy to organize, but may be more disruptive than revolutionary in effecting social change.


Revolution is disruption with a cause. Merely disrupting the status quo can backfire–the extreme being a devolution into chaos.

Case in point. An iPhone and a Facebook page may have been sufficient to trigger the Arab Spring, in which 5 Middle Eastern governments were toppled in short order by loosely confederated mobs. There was, however, no surrogate plan for governance. It’s unclear whether these movements substantially improved the lot of the citizenry.

Clayton Christensen, who popularized–if not invented–the notion of disruptive innovation, identified a pattern whereby start-ups enter an established market with minimum value products (MVPs), add value by iterating, and end up pushing-out the incumbents. An example is the emergence of the personal computer in the late 1970s by companies like Apple. Within a decade, IBM, with their entrenched mainframe mentality, was on the brink of bankruptcy.

There is transfer. While Christensen’s theory of disruption focused on for-profit concerns, he has more recently rebranded a subset of its methodologies for application to social movements, motivated more on philosophical grounds.

He characterizes this as a program for “catalytic change”–abstracted below from his recent article in the Harvard Business Review.

It’s fairly easy to grasp the disruptive-innovation model when it’s applied to commercial products and services. But how, exactly, does the model work in the social sector? Catalytic innovators share five qualities:

  • They create systemic social change through scaling and replication.
  • They meet a need that is either over-served (because the existing solution is more complex than many people require) or not served at all.
  • They offer products and services that are simpler and less costly than existing alternatives and may be perceived as having a lower level of performance, but users consider them to be good enough.
  • They generate resources, such as donations, grants, volunteer manpower, or intellectual capital, in ways that are initially unattractive to incumbent competitors.
  • They are often ignored, disparaged, or even encouraged by existing players for whom the business model is unprofitable or otherwise unattractive and who therefore avoid or retreat from the market segment.


The bottom-up movements cited by Tufekci have proven less impactful than, for example, the Civil Rights movement in 1960s America, because they lacked the essential ingredients of catalytic innovations. They didn’t iterate slowly enough to establish a coherent communications infrastructure, and though inspired by charismatic personalities, lacked leadership.

Planning and inherent sustainability are as important to the development of business products as they are in the arena of social services.

Top-down social movements can also leverage these methods. For example, the Howard Dean presidential campaign was perhaps the first to utilize social networks for both promulgating his message and fundraising. The Obama campaign was more successful in refining and applying the model. Both were shepherded by well-tuned organizations.

They can also go awry. The TEA Party movement and Trump Presidency are examples of negative catalytic processes. TEA party incumbents won legislative appointments by these means but are log-jamming Congress. Trump’s tweets may have won the electoral college (most people who voted for him didn’t even go to college), but are undermining the credibility of his presidency.

I’d argue that the hallmark of a successful movement, whether instigated from the top or the bottom, is a good storyline.

Tufekci misses that point.

Marshall Ganz–the chief “behind the scenes” strategist and organizer credited with the successes of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez–stresses it in his legionary organizing course at the Harvard Kennedy School.


Or maybe, there are just too many active channels creating a cacophony, and nobody’s looking or listening because they can’t disambiguate it. It’s information overload. It’s too big to know.

Finally, and Tufekci also leaves this out, what we really need is a movement away from representative to direct democracy.

The Germans do this through their system of referenda, whereby citizens lobby on an issue, a national referendum is called, and the government reacts immediately to the demands of the majority. Politicians have to be responsive–or they are out on their tails in the next election–or sooner if they piss-off enough of the electorate to warrant a referendum themselves.

I was hoping Obama would implement a referendum area on the White House website. I think it would have given him the punch he needed to override a dysfunctional Congress.


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