Perceptions of Efficacy and Futility: If Rosa Parks could tweet


As someone who studies new media and political identity, I find this tweet (and it’s popularity – apart from all the RTs and Favorites, no one contradicted it) very interesting. It taps into some assumptions about the link between platforms, messages, contexts and effects. To start with, there was no Twitter around when Rosa Parks did her thing. If there had been Twitter, then she may either have been overtly excluded on the basis of race (eg Black people not allowed to have  a Twitter account), or she may have been excluded by poverty (eg poor people  don’t have money to own a computer in the first place), or she may have been excluded by a skills deficit (eg even if she had a computer, her use of it may have been limited to mundane tasks that disciplined her as a technological subject without necessarily expanding her scope for empowerment), or indeed she may not have had voice/power/influence even if she had known how to use Twitter, simply by dint of being Black/poor/female etc.


So if Twitter had been around back then, if Rosa Parks had been  on it, if she had posted her support of civil rights, that might already have signified access to technology, access to education, access to political identity and a whole host of other legitimations of personhood. Of course, this may still not have meant that desegregation would have occurred. So there is one more assumption that this tweet embeds, which is about the political efficacy of expressions of political identity on Twitter. Which highlights yet another assumption, this time more generally about the efficacy of any action: that one action by one person can make a difference in the way in which we expect many actions by many people can make a difference. Without taking away any of the deep meanings in Rosa Parks’s courageous act, it seems reasonable to assume that it took place, and saw its effect, in a context of other acts of resistance by many other people. And these acts took place within, as well as by their expression constructed, a context in which a collective identity was able to develop. The 1960s version of “oh, so you think posting on Twitter is going to change anything” would have been “oh, so you think sitting on a bus is going to change anything”. At the time, many people – Black as well as white – may have doubted the efficacy of that individual action, especially if they were not able to see the wider context in which it occurred. But its effect (riding on as well as helping to add to the wave of growing sense of certain efficacy – in itself linked to the ability to envision a desired end point) may have made the act look efficacious in retrospect.


So yes. If Rosa Parks alone had tweeted, and nothing else had changed, then I guess desegregation would never have happened. But if she had tweeted, and others had tweeted, and other actions were taking place, and because of all this there was a growing vision of what that other world might look like, and the wider sociopolitical context also contained conditions ripe for change if they could just be harnessed by waves of action, identity and imagination, then maybe – just maybe – that tweet may have been the one to break the camel’s back. But we must remember that the camel is powerful precisely because it is metaphorical. Because as long as we think only some very specific thing counts as breaking the camel’s back, we will always be ridiculing the straws of human action.


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