Special Guest PostBy Ken Quandt

It was Mar­garet Mead who said, “Nev­er doubt that a small group of thought­ful, com­mit­ted cit­i­zens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Mead prob­a­bly nev­er imag­ined the com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools read­i­ly avail­able today, nor how sig­nif­i­cant these tools have become. Wit­ness the piv­otal role that Twit­ter played in the ouster of Egyp­t’s Hos­ni Mubarek — just one exam­ple of the ways that thought­ful, com­mit­ted cit­i­zens organ­ised and made their col­lec­tive voic­es heard dur­ing what has come to be known as the “Arab Spring”.

Ken QuandtThis is not so much a mat­ter of how many “likes” a Face­book page receives, but instead it’s about how the will of the peo­ple can be chan­neled through social media tools to change the course of his­to­ry. Social media are hav­ing an impact on mod­ern polit­i­cal move­ments. In the ear­ly 21st Cen­tu­ry, unpop­u­lar lead­ers may be forced to step down in the face of the col­lec­tive voice of the peo­ple and the tools they utilise are like­ly to be social media tools.

It has been said that the pen is might­i­er than the sword, and today the pen has been replaced by a key­pad on a mobile device. A few hun­dred years ago, a for­ward-think­ing fel­low named Thomas Paine pro­duced and dis­trib­uted a pam­phlet enti­tled “Com­mon Sense”. It was Jan­u­ary 1776. The place was the for­mer British colonies in North Amer­i­ca. “Com­mon Sense” pre­sent­ed the Amer­i­can colonists with an argu­ment for free­dom from British rule at a time when the ques­tion of seek­ing inde­pen­dence was still unde­cid­ed. Paine wrote and rea­soned in a style that com­mon peo­ple under­stood. Paine knew noth­ing of Twit­ter or Face­book, but he was onto some­thing big. Paine’s work is but one prece­dent in his­to­ry for a mes­sage com­mu­ni­cat­ed in a digestible man­ner lead­ing to polit­i­cal change, but — now with social media — nev­er have such mes­sages been com­mu­ni­cat­ed by peo­ple with such immediacy.

Social Media Word Cloud

The legit­i­mate use of tech­nol­o­gy to shape polit­i­cal for­tunes seems almost rou­tine in 2013. It is inter­est­ing to spec­u­late about what the future may hold as smart­phones get smarter and new social media tech­nolo­gies emerge. In 1993 some peo­ple still used type­writ­ers. Twen­ty years lat­er the idea of slid­ing a piece of paper into a machine to pro­duce an orig­i­nal doc­u­ment one key­stroke at a time seems quaint.

What can be expect­ed 20 years hence?

Per­haps true democ­ra­cy will be realised when “one per­son one vote”, trans­mit­ted by some yet-to-be designed, but uni­ver­sal­ly avail­able, smart device becomes a real­i­ty. His­to­ri­ans may write of the late 20th Cen­tu­ry fol­ly of recount­ing paper bal­lots, elec­tion offi­cials exam­in­ing “hang­ing chads” in Flori­da and and the oth­er anti­quat­ed tech­nolo­gies that helped deter­mine his­to­ry’s win­ners and losers. What­ev­er the future holds, one thing seems cer­tain: tech­nol­o­gy will con­tin­ue to play a vital role in near­ly every aspect of mod­ern life, includ­ing the polit­i­cal process itself.

Lead­ers who under­es­ti­mate the sig­nif­i­cance of social media will do so at their own peril.

Ken Quandt (@kenquandt) is Web man­ag­ing edi­tor at Rush Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Cen­ter in Chica­go, Illi­nois. Ken’s inter­ests include con­tent mar­ket­ing, dig­i­tal strat­e­gy, effec­tive­ness mea­sure­ment, paid search, SEO and social media. He is a gad­get geek, motor­cy­cle enthu­si­ast and trained librar­i­an with a back­ground in Amer­i­can social and cul­tur­al history.

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