The Great Debate: Tweeting the Revolution

People met at United Nations Plaza in San Francisco to take part in an International Day to show solidarity with the democracy movements in Egypt and Tunis. Photo by Steve Rhodes.

This week’s much-covered controversy is about whether or not the violent protests in Egypt were brought on by a “Twitter Revolution.”

The same question was raised in 2009 during the Iran elections, with some thought leaders like Malcolm Gladwell and other journalists answering with a resounding “No!”

Gladwell responds again this week to claims that the most recent uprisings were caused by online social networking: “Please,” he writes. ”People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.”  But defenders of online mobilizing insist that times have changed. 

Allison Fine, author of the award-winning book, “Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age,” says social media are aiding revolutions, particularly by providing these three critical resources:

  1. the ability to initially organize
  2. the power to change plans in midstream
  3. [enabling] citizens to share their stories, pictures and videos with the rest of the world

VIRTUAL REALITY

Artist Rita King today wrote about “Why Virtual Worlds Play an Important Role in the Changing Arab World,” in the context of recent events. She gives examples of the psychological impact of virtual worlds, mainly, that they are the “perfect medium for exploring cultural understanding” among geographically dispersed people, and she writes about the impact of virtual protests, such as the one that occurred in the immersive game world of Second Life during the real-world conflict in Gaza in 2008.

“Our digital identities have echoed louder than ever into the physical world, bringing about change and connecting us in ways that would not have been possible before,” said one of King’s interviewees, Mohammed Yahia, a science journalist and editor of Nature Middle East. “The relationships we have formed digitally have made some protesters feel like they’ve known each other for years, coming together and working together in some amazing displays of empathy.”

ACCELERATED RESPONSE

Ethan Zuckerman, the co-founder of Global Voices, posted this fascinating interview with Andy Carvin, senior strategist at NPR and an online organizer who has been covering the recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Carvin explains that he first started following the uprisings in Tunisia because the story was not getting covered adequately in the mainstream press.

He started an experimental Storify collection about it and encouraged his NPR colleagues to follow along. ”I felt Storify could at least let me tell a narrative arc of what was going on,” he said, “from the time Bouazizi set himself on fire, to ultimately, Ben Ali fleeing the country.”

For Carvin, curating Twitter streams, Wikipedia posts, YouTube videos and Flickr photos on a tool like Storify is like any other form of storytelling or journalism.

“I’m sure there are still plenty of people who are skeptical that social media curation is an actual form of journalism. But let’s say if I worked for an advocacy org – I could see these same tools being used for whatever cause I support…It’s all storytelling, whether you put your own perspective into it or not.”

CRITICAL MASS

When Zuckerman asks him about the validity of “social media as source for social change,” Carvin admits he’s torn, while still acknowledging the important role that online social networks play in mobilizing people offline:

“On the one hand, I’m no cyber-utopian. I have no illusion that regimes are going to use social media for their own self interest, as we saw so vividly in Iran. But I think it goes both ways – clearly these dissidents and protesters see social media as a way of asserting their own self-interests as well. Last week I asked a Tunisian colleague if the revolution would’ve succeeded without social media. She said it probably would have eventually, but would have taken a hell of a lot longer and would’ve been much bloodier. Maybe she’s right; I honestly don’t know. But what I do see happening here, first in Tunisia and then in Cairo, that there are a critical mass of people there who believe that social media can help their causes. They obviously have their own offline networks that they’re working, but social media is helping them grease the wheels, amplify things inside and outside the country, capture bad acts by the regimes on their camera phones, etc. Essentially, they’ve reached a critical mass of people who don’t differentiate their online lives from their offline lives any more. So for them, these tools have been vital. For others, perhaps not, but clearly it’s playing some kind of role.”

As E.B. Boyd echoes in FastCompany, social media accelerated the Egypt revolts by helping to organize protests, shape the narrative and putting pressure on Washington. “Did social media make all this happen? No, of course not,” he writes. “Did it bring everything to a head much sooner than it would have, had Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube not existed? Absolutely.”

Despite all the attention on virtual worlds and online conversations, there is no doubt that Egypt’s uprisings occur most visibly in the physical world. In the words of Sarah Goodyear from Grist.org: “Because whether or not this revolution began on social media, it has flowered on the streets of Egypt’s great cities.” And it’s also true to say that while “the streets of Cairo themselves have been the medium that has carried the message of the Egyptian people,” a new version of public space is blossoming – in the tweets.

Erica Schlaikjer

About the Author Erica Schlaikjer

Erica Schlaikjer is the Creator and Curator of Benevolent Media. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @benevolentmedia and @eschlaik.

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