protest_phonesOne of the biggest benefits of the Internet, and more specifically social media, is how it supposedly democratizes power. Advocates of the Web often point to its ability to spread information and how it provides a platform for people to be heard as examples of its empowering effects. But simply spreading information is not the same as actually empowering people. And since the internet gives everyone an opportunity to speak, the end result is analogous to being in a room where everybody is yelling at the same time and drowning each other out.

The problem with democratized power is that it’s transient. It moves from group to group  and even person to person. And transient power, by definition, doesn’t last. Even when this type of leaderless movement appears to accomplish something, it is almost always as an obstructionist, not as a movement that provides forward looking solutions. Consider how the internet community rallied together to defeat SOPA. Once SOPA went down, we did nothing to offer an alternative to Congress or to the entertainment industry. The movement provided no leadership beyond stopping what it didn’t like.

Revolting against the powers that be versus actually being charged with leading are two very different things. We can see a great example of this in Egypt where social media helped organize the revolution but the country now finds itself back at square one, trying to put together an effective government. Deposing Mubarak is starting to look like the easy part.

Because of the transient nature of democratized power, even at its best these movements can only rally around a cause for a short period of time. Once the problem is defeated, or sometimes even before the problem is defeated, the energy behind the movement will dissipate. Or worse, the loosely affiliated factions will turn against each other and engage in infighting.

Consider the Occupy Wall Street movement. OWS had all the characteristics that advocates of Internet social “power” talk about. It was meant as a movement for the masses, as embodied by the “we are the 99%” motto. It was spread and at least partially organized online, and it compelled people to take real world action. And yet it achieved no results. The core message of exposing a flawed and perhaps corrupt plutocratic ruling class devolved into various demands ranging from free tuition to free housing. Because of this, the energy of OWS was misdirected.

Ultimately, OWS was easily broken. The movement never offered a solution, or for that matter never even agreed on what it wanted fixed. For all of its online social democratized power, without a leadership structure to organize its pent up energy, OWS proved powerless to affect any real change. Defeating the movement required little more than clearing a few parks and waiting for it to die out on its own. So much for the leaderless social revolution.

While the power of the Internet to help organize people is indisputable, in some ways it has made it too easy for people to express themselves. We can now claim to be part of a protest movement by simply Tweeting a link or liking a Facebook page. It requires virtually zero commitment, and anything that requires low or no effort is going to attract transient followers. Notice we’re back to the problem of transience. Transient followers have no skin in the game.

This is why the promise of Internet empowerment has largely gone unfulfilled. We have failed to recognize the importance of organization. Decentralized power does not have to mean directionless power, and democratized power does not have to be disorganized power. But in our rush to reject hierarchical leadership, we threw out the baby with the bathwater and have lost sight of the benefits of formal organization. This left us with transient, disorganized, and unfocused power that, at best, serves to obstruct but never leads. And that isn’t really power at all.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]