Were the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia simply a consequence of the internet and its mysterious powers? Or was New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell right to argue, in a widely read piece, that today's networked activists are trivial and ineffective by comparison with the courageous sit-in organisers of the civil rights movement?
As someone who has spent much of the last decade harnessing the internet to organise networks and movements for change, I find myself taking these questions personally. But they also miss everything that is really interesting about the ferment of social change today.
What is really going on is much richer and more interesting. It has seismic implications for the organising models of NGOs and political parties – and even corporations and governments. It heralds both danger and promise for the future of global justice and human development.
In a time of turbulence, the lessons that a rising global generation of activists draw from recent events – and the movements they build – matter. Let's begin with some basic common sense.
First, social change is made by human beings, not by Silicon Valley. Anyone relying naively on technology is likely to find themselves isolated. The disciplines that matter most are timeless: spotting unmet needs or injustices, working with the social grain, and coming up with an effective, empowering and sustainable response.
On the other hand, by making new things possible, visible or attractive, technology has repeatedly inspired changes in how we organise our societies. It all depends what we do with it. Different things work in different contexts. The challenge is to learn, innovate and adapt, combining the experience of the past with the reality of the present and the promise of the future.