Month: February 2011

The revolution that touched the world

So much debate in the last couple of weeks about the role of the Internet in general, and social media in particular, on the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. As expected, we have 2 camps that have emerged in a more or less predictable chronological order.

First of all were the people who extolled the power of social media in enabling the revolution. Khaled Said, the Everyman whose death at the hands of the Egyptian police and subsequent memorialisation on a Facebook page created by Wael Ghonim, became the inadvertent focal point of a community that had had a cause for a while, but had lacked a definite trigger. Did Faceboook provide this trigger? Some think that without Facebook, the revolution might never have happened.

But then we have the second group of people who pooh-pooh the whole idea that social media can cause revolution. After all, they say, there are so many factors that lead people to revolt – political, social, economic – and let’s not downplay the role of human agency. Facebook may have been a trigger, but who turned it into one? Enabling a revolution and causing a revolution are two very different things. People have risen up against leaders they have disapproved of before, and they have done it using whatever technology was available at the time. The printing press, the microphone, the radio, the television, the mobile phone. What is there really so special about the Internet in this larger scheme of things?

What I think is that we have, as usual, fallen into the habit of seeing things in binary. This might work in computing, but it doesn’t work in social research. All technologies shape society in some way as they diffuse and move towards domestication, so why is the Internet special? Because the devil is in the details. There IS something special about the Internet because of the way it changes thought processes, provides access to the wider world, creates strong networks, allows for rapid information sharing across these networks, socialises people into new modes of learning and being, and encourages participation in multiple ways. We might not want to overplay the role of social media at the expense of human agency because we are, after all, human. But downplaying the role of social media means that we also downplay that which has altered our expressions of that humanity. We are manifested in our social interactions, in the networks we build through those interactions, in the platforms where we situate those networks, and in the ways in which we draw on those networks. Social media didn’t just give us a place to park our networks. It has shaped the way in which we viewed, developed and used them.

Stepping away from the site of the revolution for a moment, I’d like to say this: the revolution may or may not have happened without Twitter. But what Twitter and Facebook did was make me (and many others) feel as though it was our revolution too. It would be too much to say that the Internet makes the whole world one community – there is too much research that proves otherwise. But as each event happens, social media moves the ripples wider, so that it is not just information that is shared, but emotion as well. With television I knew that Tiananmen was happening, and I saw the pain of the people. With Twitter, I knew that Tahrir was happening, but I felt the pain of the people, as well as the solidarity of the world as they sent virtual support to a whole country.

For some opinions about the link between social media and revolution see here and here and here.  And in hundreds more places, many of which are linked to from these posts. Zeynep Tufecki’s is, I think, one of the most nuanced and well articulated that I have come across.


So hung up…about being left out

Every once in a while someone raises his head and lets out a howl of yearning for times gone by. They feel like relics in a world that is leaving them behind. Our latest casualty of the mobile age wrote a piece in the Straits Times today expressing his angst in a way that tries to be balanced but ends up sounding aggressively patronising. In “So hung up on the mobile phone” (Friday, 11th February, 2011), the writer confronts us with the accusation that we are too reliant on our mobile phones. To be sure, the accusation is not overtly audience-addressed, but descriptions of people he is surrounded by sound suspiciously ubiquitous, and I am not afraid to admit that I am the exact sort of person that he finds so threatening. It hasn’t slipped my notice that women were singled out in the article more  than once. Maybe that is threatening too – the possibility that for the first time there is a technological innovation that speaks to women more than it does to men. Yes women chat more, text more, talk more. Women like their phones to look good. Why is all this so surprising? We like to communicate, we like to shop, we like pretty things. This is something new?

I have a smartphone – a BlackBerry, to be precise. There are times when I am chatting across multiple platforms with different people: Google Chat, Skype, BlackBerry Messenger and Whatsapp. In between I skitter over to Twitter or Facebook. I click on the links on these sites and my browser opens. While I am waiting for the pages to load I go back to my chats. Do I look anti-social to the people around me? Maybe. But when I was a teenager and there were no mobile phones around I used to carry a book with me wherever I went so that I could bury myself in it when I had to wait for the bus. Was I more social then? I am more social now than I have ever been in my life, thanks to my mobile phone. The device can’t make someone social who is inherently anti-social. But it can enable the expression of a sociable disposition.

An example is given of a woman who fell into a fountain while texting. We are told that she then had the temerity to sue the mall where the fountain was located. That is a ridiculously extreme example. Most of us don’t go falling into fountains, and ridiculous people find many ways to impose their foolishness on the world around them. Ever heard of the woman who sued MacDonald’s because she spilled hot coffee on her lap there? Another example is a study about how hyper-texting leads to substance use among teens. I am always so sceptical about these easy takeaway idea-bites that research gets condensed into in news articles. Is this cause or just correlation? Could it be that teenagers who use substances feel like they are marginalised as part of a deviant subculture and therefore feel the need to reach out to their ingroup more? That texting is preferred to talking because no one else sees the texts, while talking means anyone can overhear? So many possibilities!

The writer very honestly admits that he is past the stage in his career where immediacy matters. But his younger colleagues are not so lucky. In Singapore we have no choice when it comes to newspapers, but in countries that do have choice the papers lose out if news spreads on Twitter faster than they can get it to print. In most countries newspapers are facing severe competition from online media, and journalists have to make sure they are in the frontline of news gathering if they want to keep their edge. But I put it to the writer that he did not have it easier than his juniors. I am sure he had to find a way to grab the news – and he did it using the technology that was available then.

Were people so very social to those around them before mobile phones came along? I wonder what people said to bookworms when the printing press came along. What of children who had to stay silent in the days of radio news broadcasts? Of wives who sat in loneliness at the breakfast table while their husbands hid behind newspapers?

I put it to the writer that he is feeling left out – not of the technology, but the sheer joy of experiencing the affordances of a device that offers a social experience like never before.