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Tweeting a revolution and more

Last October, Malcolm Gladwell caused some controversy by posting an article on Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. At the time, the article caused a stir among the blogosphere of people agreeing, at least in part and some others vehemently disagreeing. This debate just got a lot more interesting thanks to the recent revolution in Egypt and there’s already been quite a bit of talk about how much of it might be owed (or not) to Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet in general– both in the blogosphere (like this post on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube’s role in the uprisings in the Middle East) and in the mainstream media, like the New York Times: Equal Rights Takes to the Barricades and Facebook Officials Keep Quiet on Its Role in Revolts.

I don’t want to get into the debate on the subject (partly because that would probably take a book and not a blog post), but it did start me thinking about the idea of free sources, legal or not, on the Internet, in general.  In this class and elsewhere, obviously, having these free resources is very useful for lawyers and other people to learn more and, even if social media and the Internet might not cause a literal revolution, everyone seems agreed that having more free resources is a good thing.  But it occurs to me that just having these new resources may not, actually, be a good, in and of itself, but it’s only as good as what people use it for (like most tools, of any kind.)   As Gladwell pointed out, a link or a cause going “viral” on Facebook and Twitter is one thing, but it may not actually do anything.   As an example, I can point to one recent campaign on Facebook that involved urging people to use a certain website to turn their profile pictures purple as a symbol of solidarity against the rash of teenage bullying in schools.  Showing solidarity is a good thing as was raising the profile of the issue, but as an action, I highly doubt it accomplished any tangible good– or ever will.  Clicking ‘like’ on Facebook isn’t a form of voting in an election and it won’t even contact a member of Congress to let them know about a problem, that may potentially have some effect.  It’s more a short, painless way of making people feel involved and active without actually requiring them to do anything. The problem is that it may even deepen the fairly notorious apathy of the average American when it comes to things like politics and law-making.  Such people may end up feeling just involved enough by clicking ‘like’ on Facebook, and not so uninvolved as to feel like s/he needs to make a real effort to get involved in a meaningful way.

The Internet has made a lot of things much easier, but sometimes doing what’s harder is what’s required.  As an example (and returning to a more legal subject), Regulations.gov has made it a lot easier for the public to comment on federal agency rule-makings. But making commenting easier didn’t necessarily result in more or better public comments to proposed rules and may, in fact, result in worse comments. For example, in the Airline Passenger Rights rule, there were a large number of comments– at least 40– submitted by members of an airline passenger rights organization that were nearly all identical and did nothing but express the person’s support for the proposed rule. Such comments would have been absolutely useless to the agency and is one example of how lowering barriers to participation may not end up being a good thing. Participating in a rulemaking in any meaningful way requires some effort– if only just to understand the rule at issue– and that may not be a bad thing.

The free legal resources available may have their negative effects too. As an example, it may make people feel more confident to represent themselves pro se in any legal matters that arise, but pro se litigants are likely to be disadvantaged when facing off against a lawyer in court, not only from a lack of formal training, but because of the limited information that’s available. As we’ve mentioned in class, none of the free websites that provide case law allow for things like Shepardizing and so a litigant may end up relying on a case that was no longer good law and lose the case. This is not to say, of course, that having more legal resources available on the Internet is a bad thing, but as in evaluating any new website, we should remember that more information doesn’t necessarily mean more good information, just as lowering barriers to participation doesn’t necessarily lead to effective or meaningful participation.

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