Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Spirit of '76 in '08: Revolution in the Social Media Era

With the country's birthday upon us, I've been considering how the American Revolution might've been different in the age of Social Media. Of course, there would be significant (and frightening) differences in warfare, but the American Revolution had as much to do with disseminating information, organizing, collaborating, and inciting as it did muskets and cannons. It's interesting to speculate how access to today's social media tools might've altered the course of human events.

One way social media might have impacted the American Revolution is by hastening events. The colonies' journey from being distant subjects of Great Britain to forming the democratic government we know today wasn't a particularly hasty affair. The Stamp Act of 1765 was the first British action that involved taxing the American colonies without their consent or representation. Independence was declared in 1776, but we weren't free of the war that followed until the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The American Revolution spanned 18 years, a period that seems unimaginably lengthy in our 21st Century frame of reference.

The year before the Stamp Act, the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act. The Brits figured the colonies were too disorganized and disparate to mount a unified objection to the act. The law was passed in April of 1764, but the British got no word of colonial opposition until late December when pamphlets and petitions were delivered across the pond.

Nine months for an action and reaction! Today, the mere fact a government body is considering an unpopular bill is enough to send the Internet into a tizzy. If today's Social Media tools existed in 1764, it would have required less than a month for FightTheSugarAct.com to be launched, the blogosphere to ignite traffic, Snopes.com to announce the rumors about the act are true, and an email petition to result in 500,000 angry emails swamping Parliament's mail server. Before the act was passed, lawmakers would've known the breadth and depth of the dissent and considered the implications. Perhaps armed with this knowledge, Parliament might have acted differently and found a more agreeable approach to working with the colonies.

Seven years later came one of the seminal events in American history, the Boston Tea Party. Irate that a British company was being allowed to sell its tea in America without being taxed in the same way as domestic companies, Sam Adams and his Sons of Liberty began to call regular protest meetings in Boston. These meetings, which occurred over a period of just two or three weeks, culminated on December 16th. When this gathering failed to produce the desired results, many of the 8,000 in attendance boarded British boats and dumped 45 tons of tea in Boston Harbor. (We Americans were a mannered lot back then--we'd steal and dump tea worth $1.87 million in 2007 currency, but when a padlock was broken during the raid, it was replaced.)

The Boston Tea Party was America's first flash mob. It goes to show the power of Word of Mouth marketing back in the 18th Century that Sam Adams could get 8,000 people together before the advent of email, phones, SMS, and photocopiers. This total may have been over half the population of the city at the time! Today, such an event could be planned with a group on Facebook and promoted via email. (Paul Revere would send a text message to Sam Adams reading, "Hey Beerman. B @ the harbor 2nite. Bring Ur disguise cuz we R mixin it up. Liberty 4eva!")

But where technology might really have benefited the Sons of Liberty is in the post-event promotion. Word spread quickly from person to person, but it took many weeks for news of the uprising to reach throughout the colonies and back to England. Boston Tea Party circa 2008 would be documented with photos taken by mobile phone and distributed all over the Internet before the event was even over; or better yet, video would be streamed live from phones via newer tools and sites like Qik.

In January, 1776, the question of independence from Great Britain was being debated, and Thomas Paine wanted to influence popular opinion. He turned to the latest technology available at the time: The printing press. His forty-eight page pamphlet, Common Sense, went through twenty-five editions in the first year alone, reportedly selling 500,000 copies at a time when the U.S. population was just 2.5 million.

Today, Paine could've gotten his word out instantaneously and with no expense. He would've blogged his passionate arguments for severing ties with London at CommonSense.Blogspot.com, purchased the search terms "freedom" and "independence" on Adwords, encouraged visitors to Digg his articles, and sought to generate visits and WOM by engaging in political discussion with like-minded individuals on Internet forums. Of course, he would've had to be much more succinct--who has time to read 48 pages?!?

The American Revolution may have been enhanced and hastened in the age of Social Media. Or perhaps not--maybe everyone would've been too busy watching viral videos on FunnyOrDie.com to get involved.

This Independence Day, turn off your computer, have a Miller Lite with friends, and enjoy the original Social Media--parties.

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