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.

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