(The Root) — As seminal events take their twists and turns through the zeitgeist, more often than not we're as likely to tweet about it as we are to act on it. These days, critical issues aren't marked by mass movements to counteract fire hoses and snapping German shepherds on a bigot's leash. And you'd be pressed to find sit-ins at lunch counters or college campuses.
Outrage is less in-your-face, more anonymous fumes on the feed. You can hide the whites of your eyes under sunglasses or snap only half your mug in the profile square.
Generally speaking, we've become a world of tweeting punks. We're like kids who punch and run in the schoolyard. The online space, much like cable talk, is now dominated by a vernacular arms race of who's snarkier than who. But at the end of a long, exhausting day of freestyle clashes, name-calling and incessant whining about the state of things, we should ask ourselves: Did we get anything done other than piss off other people?
In other words: is our social media translating into social impact?
While political scientists and pundits get punch-drunk with virtual signs of increased political engagement, we may be misreading the signs of that engagement. Suddenly we're all stars. We have better ways to amplify our stage presence, but screaming is one thing. Execution is something else.
Somewhere along the way, we mistook digital advocacy for social change — the easiest, most efficient way to get it done. We databased our capacity to change and ended up diluting it. Some of that is pure laziness; some of it is because it's cost-effective. But much of it stems from not knowing the what-separates-the-professionals-from-the-amateurs political process.
Hoodie-accessorizing profile pics and screenshots may have been the viral sensation that ultimately raised needed awareness for #TrayvonMartin. But the political dots have yet to connect. "Stand your ground" laws remain in 26 states (as well as among any number of emotionally distressed, wife-beating, trigger-happy gun collectors looking for an excuse). And while there are more than 600 black state elected officials throughout the United States, many playing key leadership roles in state legislatures, no one has yet triggered an effective "Stand your ground" repeal movement.
Hashtagging #VoterID in your feed and retweeting the rage might get you fist-bump replies. But it's not as if the Supreme Court cared about your hashtag before it gutted the Voting Rights Act this past summer, along with affirmative action as we knew it. Black politics got its ass served on a conservative platter while #blacktwitter went viral.
Smart folks point out that political engagement is actually rising. A recent University of Chicago survey (pdf) of 3,000 people ages 15-25 found "participatory" politics increasing or at relatively respectable levels in a democracy, with much of it driven by regular social media use. African-American youths, at 57 percent, are more likely than their white (51 percent), Latino (49 percent) or Asian-American (52 percent) counterparts to send messages, share status updates and links or routinely chat it up. Overall, 41 percent of the youth demographic was reported to have been politically engaged in the previous year.
However, many of us are improperly equating high levels of political engagement and vocalization with actual political participation and mobilization. That's just more people finding newer ways to shout.
How many times you tweet the name of an issue or candidate might determine who or what wins an election. But political activism is being duped into a false sense of … political activism. We've confused democracy with advocacy, and justifiable frustration with method and process. It's civic illiteracy. We expect tangible social or political change, but most Americans can't name all three branches of government and don't know who John Roberts is.
We can get elated all we want about people voting when they could watch it all unfold from home. But do they even know the full story beyond scripted 140-character billboards that fit into a smartphone? According to an analysis by Social Media Today, you'll see fewer likes on your Facebook page if you post messages that are longer than 140 characters; and Pew found that nearly 30 percent of the hottest YouTube videos were a minute or less.
And yet social media is essential. It holds enormous value and almost limitless community value, especially when it's used for the common good. I use it, you use it; many in the space understand the need for it. But political social networking sites and stratagems should not be viewed as the panacea to democracy's ills; that's the tail leading the horse. It is one necessary screw in the larger political-action toolbox.
Hence, first we need to reassess how we're defining political participation in the digital age and accept that it's not on a couch or in a coffeehouse or on a keyboard. Real participation is holistic … and dirty. The real value is when you touch lives in tangible ways, when the social media message is crystallized and takes radical shape on the kitchen table.
The true performance metric for social media is when it jumps from screen to political action committee to canvassing to volunteering to people on the street en masse or crowding legislative and regulatory offices en masse. And it shouldn't just be for one candidate, either. This is when you get lawmakers to shift from useless debt and deficit fights and focus on more important issues, like unemployment, income inequality and homelessness. That's when we might have a shot at reducing gas, food and college tuition prices in a way that's much more consequential than millions of WTFs, SMHs and other cute protestations in the online space.
Our voices are louder, but our attention spans are shorter. We're celebrating an increase in youth political engagement, but few know anything about politics beyond what's in front of them — and even that won't get the time of day unless it's A-listed or trending. In the constantly evolving digital space where we're compelled to keep up with and join the latest social media thing, we're jumping from one tweet, retweet and reply to the next before we even know what's going on.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Sure, he tweets, too.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.