Over spring break I read The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas by Gal Beckerman (Crown, 2022), a new book offering an insightful approach to understanding social change and the role of traditional media and contemporary social media in the process of social change.
Each chapter examines how a significant social movement started and what helped it take hold. The book describes how successful social movements begin with quiet conversations driven by “small, unlikely, combinations of persistent people” and provides examples of successful and unsuccessful social movements and the importance of “partnerships committed to a new quality of relationship” for their success. Beckerman offers an astute indictment of contemporary social media as a form of conversation that makes it impossible to “shift what is possible and transformative across generations,” which is why a lot of social change organizations have regrouped and reimagined their strategies to involve more genuine conversations and less social media follower building.
The Quiet Before starts with the story of how the evolution of the postal service and the correspondence enabled by it helped jump-start the scientific revolution in Europe. One of the most compelling stories is how a newspaper helped create a new nation as Africa began to decolonize. Another story reveals how petitions secured the right to vote in 1830s Britain. We are shown how zines gave voice to women’s rage in the early 1990s. And more recently, we learn how messaging apps helped epidemiologists fight the pandemic despite an incompetent administration that cared more about politicizing the virus than addressing public health responsibilities. Beckerman’s well-researched analysis demonstrates how influential social movements start in quiet, closed networks that allow a small group of people to align around a common mission and incubate their ideas before sharing them widely.
Today Facebook and Twitter have all but replaced these productive, private spaces to the detriment of social movements worldwide. Beckerman offers a convincing explanation as to why the Arab Spring fell apart and could not gain traction after the revolution driven by social media. There was no place for the quiet conversations required to forge a democratic nation. Beckerman acknowledges that there were factors beyond social media at play, like any complex system, we have to acknowledge that simple cause and effect is never sufficient for a full explanation, but social media alone does not a revolution make.
The Quiet Before challenges activists to consider the affordances of the media ecosystems they navigate, focusing on nurturing communities and growing radical ideas instead of chasing social media followers, who are never there when you need them. The book presents an important and timely message for contemporary activists that in order to make great strides in their communities they must consider the value of orchestrating quiet conversations rather than chasing social media followers. One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read during the pandemic.
Photo by Julian Wan