Joyce Carol Oates has a point.
The eminent writer was on Twitter Wednesday, discussing the political demonstrations throughout the country this year. She tweeted: "Critics of 'social media' need to acknowledge how, for all its flaws, this is a revolutionary new consciousness."
That's no writerly exaggeration. In a tumultuous year, much of the tumult was relayed, focused, stoked, and distributed through media channels other than newspapers, radio, TV, or film. From Hong Kong to Ferguson, from Mexico City to Philadelphia, social media repeatedly were harnessed to inform, create groups that shared goals and values, express outrage, solidarity, and aspiration, and organize protests.
These are protests against authority: in the United States, against racial inequality under the law; in China, against political domination by the totalitarian mainland government; and in Mexico, against the long blight of murderous corruption.
And the protests have raised an ordinary-person, transnational consciousness:
Students doing their homework in the streets of Hong Kong. Mothers and children linking arms and marching down the avenues of Mexico City. And people of all colors and classes marching in the streets of the United States, saying that something's unjust and must be fixed.
Protest wasn't the only issue. One of the biggest stories of the year was ignited here in Philadelphia: the career meltdown of Bill Cosby. There was already a vague, low-level simmer in print in September, as first reviews emerged of Mark Whitaker's book, Cosby: His Life and Time, which alluded to (but appeared to soft-pedal) longtime sexual harassment allegations against the comedian. Critical mass was reached only when Dan McQuade, a blogger at Philadelphia Magazine, attended an Oct. 16 show by comic Hannibal Buress at the Trocadero.
Buress went into a riff about Cosby and rape. McQuade held his iPhone aloft, got a video, published it on his blog the next day, and voilà. The clip went viral, news sites noticed and republished it, and new allegations surfaced. With exquisitely bad timing, on Nov. 10 Cosby's website invited followers to make memes of him, using funny photos and their own labels. He was trounced, with many trolls labeling him a rapist and sexual predator.
Since Oct. 16, at least 21 women have come forward with sexual allegations old and new. Several theaters dropped Cosby's comedy tour, and Netflix, TV Land, and other TV venues dropped Cosby-related shows and projects. His work has all but disappeared from TV.
In the Cosby fracas, legacy media went easy on a story later set afire by social media. But in the Sony hack over the satirical film The Interview, mainstream and tributaries fed one another.
The hack, which first hit Nov. 24, was one of the biggest ever, gushing out intimate e-mails and personal info about the entertainment giant, some of it hurtful and racist.
It's a crazy back-and-forth tale, among the hackers (who seemed to threaten 9/11-style attacks on theaters that showed the movie ), Sony (which, in huffiness and confusion, pulled the movie), President Obama (who called that a "mistake"), the FBI (which said the government of North Korea was behind the hack), and North Korean leaders (who deny it). At last, Sony about-faced, and The Interview was released.
"The people have spoken!" tweeted costar Seth Rogen. "Freedom has prevailed! Sony didn't give up! The Interview will be shown at theaters willing to play it on Xmas day!"
If North Korea is behind it all, the Sony hack would be one of the biggest government-sponsored cyberattacks ever, tantamount, say the more alarmist critics, to cyber-warfare.
But some suspect that the whole thing, hack and all, is a P.R. stunt. Couldn't be. Could it?
One big U.S. media story was totally Web-based, in the most fugitive of entertainment genres, the podcast. The Serial, a 12-episode nonfiction show by the makers of This American Life, became an unexpected hit, with 1.5 million listeners worldwide (said to be a record for a podcast) - so many that when the show's producers asked listeners for money to help fund a second season, it worked.
Even hostage crises have been reported and negotiated via social media, such as the episode earlier this month at the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Sydney, Australia.
But the big story was the year of protest. In China, Mexico, Thailand, and elsewhere, protests were organized and maintained by established social media such as Facebook and Twitter. In Hong Kong, the Chinese government tried to censor big social media - so savvy protesters went to encrypted one-on-one messenger apps such as WhatsApp.
The protests have lasted a remarkably long time. In China, they extended in some form from April to December. In Mexico, they began in late September and are still going, powered by a hashtag campaign, #YaMeCanse (Spanish for "I'm tired of this," from an utterance by a clueless government official).
In the United States, the largest and best-maintained protests began in August after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and were stoked by the death of Eric Garner of Staten Island, N.Y., Tarim Rice of Cleveland, and other violence. They're still going in cities all over the world, including Philadelphia.
Hashtags and slogans, spread by social media, have helped raise awareness, bring like-minded people together, and organize.
#HandsUp and #HandsUpDontShoot became the equivalent of the peace sign for the movement, as well as the symbol for protests against police violence. #BlackLivesMatter directly called out the issue of inequality. And #IfTheyGunnedmedown protested visual stereotyping of African Americans in news reporting. #CrimingWhileWhite collected white people's stories of getting away with bad behavior because of racial privilege, and #AliveWhileBlack collected stories of hardship without racial privilege.
As Oates implies, social media have a lot of flaws. They can be trivial, a time sink, a diversion from what's important. But after 2014, it will be hard to say they are irrelevant in politics and society, that they never achieve anything concrete, that they cannot be a force for mobilizing some of the strongest sentiments in the human heart.