Last week Thomas Friedman penned a silly column claiming that Internet-based activism doesn't "count" as real political engagement. "Activism can only be uploaded, the old-fashioned way — by young voters speaking truth to power, face to face, in big numbers, on campuses or the Washington Mall. Virtual politics is just that — virtual," he says. As various people have pointed out, this is complete nonsense. I engaged in some campus activism in college in the late 1990s, and I have trouble even imagining how students coordinated their activities in the pre-email days. Blogs have proven an incredibly potent force for rooting out and publicizing injustice. And I'm sure the technologies that have evolved since I graduated are just as valuable to campus activists. Obviously, online activism by itself doesn't accomplish anything, but by the same token neither do telephone calls or newspaper columns. Rather, these are all tools that activists can use to coordinate their activities more efficiently. Many of the people who sign up for candidates' Facebook groups do go to the candidates' rallies or volunteer for their campaigns.
However, I think we shouldn't be too hard on Friedman. After all, it's pretty common for older people to complain about young people and their new-fangled ways of doing things. There are journalism professors who believe that you have to publish on paper to "count" as a serious journalist. There were lots of people who looked down their noses at Internet dating when it began, and some people still sneer at efforts to improve the online matchmaking process. And of course, there are books arguing that volunteer-driven content like Wikipedia is destroying our culture by undermining traditional ways of organizing information. Most of these arguments are silly, obviously, but it's not that hard to understand where they're coming from. If you've spent decades thinking about an activity in a particular way (if, say, you've been a print journalist for 30 years) you're going to have deeply-ingrained assumptions about how that activity is supposed to be done. And so when people start doing it a different way, it's inevitably going to seem incomprehensible and weird. So while I think Friedman's wrong, I don't think Friedman's being particularly obtuse. He's just fallen prey to garden-variety old fogeyism.