When Self-Righteousness is Only a Click Away

Tom Friedman is bullish on virtual revolution:

What is fascinating to me is the degree to which in Iran today – and in Lebanon – the more secular forces of moderation have used technologies like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, blogging and text-messaging as their virtual mosque, as the place they can now gather, mobilize, plan, inform and energize their supporters, outside the grip of the state.

But here’s the hitch. The Facebook group “1,000,000 For Obama To Grow An Afro!” has 181,025 members. And the group “If 1,000,000 People Join I’ll Legally Change My Name To Mclovin” is at 465,001 members, halfway toward getting its administrator to file the papers. Are Facebook groups really forums in which people come together to project power or are they among the most ineffectual distractions in a world brimming with ineffectual distractions?

Forget about the overtly absurd groups; what has ever been accomplished by the activist ones? Earlier in the week I received an invitation to a group condemning the Holocaust Memorial Museum shooter. I was instantly depressed. The “virtual” condemnation of an obvious monster turns outrage into farce. Just as acknowledging one’s solidarity with Iranian protesters by virtue of a mouse click trivializes the spirit of revolt.

Moreover, there’s a sense in which signing on to a virtual or symbolic cause absolves one from actually doing anything to further real-world progress. Joining a “Free Iran” group is no different than slapping a “Free Tibet” sticker on your car: it let’s the world know your heart is in the right place while you go about your day-to-day existence devoting little thought and no effort to the cause of liberty in far-off lands. Just ask Tibetans how bumper-sticker activism has worked out for them.

As for those protesters themselves who attempt to organize through Facebook, Egypt’s April 6th reform movement provides a sad cautionary tale. As Eric Trager noted, the Mubarak regime simply cracked down on the electronic organizing or figured out what was coming next by accessing Facebook. At the same time the movement itself lost focus — the way so many Internet phenomena do. We also know that Iranian Tweeting has been at least as contradictory and incoherent as it has been compelling.

What’s needed is not virtual revolution, but revolution. The harnessed “power” of Facebook can’t rival real physical force, real money, real training, real safe havens, and real support from an outside democratic government (Yes, Mr. President, that means “meddling.”) But since none of those are forthcoming, Facebook will continue to serve as the premier showcase for sympathizers looking to advertise the rightness and earnestness of their convictions.