(THE ASBURY PARK PRESS) -- The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and other recent movements arose without galvanizing figures to lead the way.
In part, the emergence of social media in those cases was the message, or at least a sign that the world had changed.
Had he stepped into 2012, would Martin Luther King Jr. have had the same impact now in a social and political landscape dominated by Facebook, Twitter and other social media?
Has history moved beyond a point where iconic personalities are necessary for social (change)movements? Or do social media represent a flash in the pan that pale in comparison to the organizational structure and heroic figures of King's era?
Some political analysts point to successful uprisings in the Middle East to argue that we have entered a new era of social change thanks to social media.
But David Greenberg, associate professor of history as well as journalism and media studies at Rutgers in New Brunswick and author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image," disagrees with the idea that social media has made leaders like King less necessary.
"Social movements still need to be organized from the bottom up, and although social media may make the job easier in some ways, the real work lies in inspiring people, developing strategies, being an effective public leader, and other things that don't necessarily have much to do with Facebook or Twitter," he said. "Towering leaders still make a great difference to movements."
The access to (a broad audience) media that social media has given to people on the margins of society is an unprecedented historical event, said Marina Vujnovic, assistant professor of communication and journalism Studies at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.
But that doesn't mean it has changed the need for leadership, she said.
"Perhaps (King's) narratives of freedom, nonviolent resistance to abusive political power would reach an even greater number of people and would spread faster," she said.
Clement Price, professor of history at Rutgers in Newark and director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, said King came at a time of monumental change in the history of America and African-Americans, but that era of luminaries has passed for now. King, the Kennedys and other men and women of the 1950s and 1960s emerged from the misery of World War II with strong moral agendas that they used to focus on domestic horrors, Price said.
"There were men and women then who symbolized so much of what the nation wants to be," Price said.
We don't know whether King would have thrived today, Price said. But certainly if King lived now, he would have used social media to his advantage, much the way he used television to bring the violence of racism - and his message - to American households.
"He was the first black American to appear on television on a regular basis with a social agenda," Price said. "He would have used social media to (expose) racism, bigotry and poverty. He did it very well with the old technology."
In King's case, it was the message and the messenger, more than the medium, Price said.
"King's was a very appealing message in a society that is always trying to reinvent itself," he said, adding that it still applies.
President Barack Obama used social media as part of his presidential campaign, which burnished his image as a leader. But an election is unlike a social movement in that it is necessarily personality-driven.
King was the face and voice of a movement that was extremely organized and disciplined - structure that allowed radicalized activists to have maximum impact.
Nancy Mezey, associate professor at Monmouth University and the director of the Institute for Global Understanding, and others argue that social media draws a different response from activists.
"The difference between a liberal and radical is that liberals will push their agendas forward as long as they remain personally comfortable," she said, citing a sociologist named Hector Delgado. "Radicals, however, are willing to withstand personal discomfort to affect change. Activism through social media is often a comfortable way to act."
Malcolm Gladwell drove home a similar point in October 2010 in a New Yorker article, "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted."
"Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice," Gladwell wrote. "The things that King needed in Birmingham-discipline and strategy-were things that online social media cannot provide."
But critics fired back.
"The fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively," wrote Clay Shirky, New York University professor and author of the influential book on social media, "Here Comes Everybody."
Howard L. West Sr., a veteran Civil Rights activist in Monmouth County, looks at King from a different vantage point: not how a change of landscape would have received King, but how King would have changed the landscape if he were still alive.
"He would have been right in the middle of what was going on," said West, who served as president of the Asbury Park-Neptune branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 30 years. "He was the glue that held everyone together. He was the glue that brought the whole world together."
West, 76, of Neptune Township, said King's leadership abilities would have made him a valuable player today, regardless of whether social media has muted the need for leaders.
"He brought together the cream of the crop, intelligent people who were mission oriented," he said. "He made everyone feel they were somebody and he gave them accurate information. He blended young people with people of advanced age with more wisdom."
King's presence has continued on decades after his death. Protesters who brought down the Berlin Wall were singing "We Shall Overcome," West said.
"That came with Dr. King," he said.