Twitter, Gladwell, and Why Social Media’s Revolutionary Potential Isn’t (Really) About Egypt

By | February 14, 2011

Image from CNN.com

Last week, amongst all the frustration, euphoria, and confused wonder surrounding the events in Egypt, Malcolm Gladwell and others got mired in another discussion regarding the relative efficacy of social media in creating political change.

I don’t want to rehash the back and forth (some thoughtful opinions here, here, and here), except to say that I empathize with Gladwell’s frustration, I really do, but I think that his push-back isn’t particularly illuminating or necessary. It’s true that some of the over-emphasis on the role of social media runs the risk of overshadowing more considered analysis of the historical context and implications of what happened in Egypt. And I have to admit that seeing some of the twitter and foursquare jokes made me bristle with annoyance briefly (not because they were making light of the situation, but because they made light of the privilege we had, as media and communications professionals in the US, in being able to be cute about it all). Maybe its a function of my youthful optimism, but I think Gladwell does a disservice in validating these strawmen as something worth arguing against.

For me, claims that social media brought forth the revolution in Egypt exist so deep within a territory of techno-narcissism that isn’t really even worth refuting. And it’s not unexpected — these technologies are still relatively new. We’re still trying to sort out what they can do. If we look at early film and TV criticism, so much focused on the “how” over the “why” in the same way that Gladwell laments, and it didn’t prevent the “why” (and the “what”) from dominating the discourse as the novelty wore off.

But more importantly, I think his arguments about social media not being relevant to revolutions makes the same awkward assumption as the claims that facebook changed Egypt: that what’s compelling about what happened online has everything (or anything) to do with Egypt per se. Maybe because I think of them as dramatically important in totally different arenas, I don’t see the emphasis on one or the other in competition with one another for column pixels. Because something significant did happen on and to social media, but to think it was what twitter and Facebook did (or didn’t do) for Egypt is to have things backwards. Twitter didn’t happen to Egypt; Egypt happened to twitter and is may be transforming how we think about the role of social media in our lives and communities.

Annie Paul makes the provocative suggestion that the crucial difference between these networked-enabled revolutions and their predecessors is that they’re essentially “leaderless revolutions.” The idea of a leaderless revolution is interesting precisely because it means that participants were able to conceive of and enunciate themselves as a public without need for a central voice.

In my work on transnational television audiences (pdf), I’ve suggested that what is radical about fan communities online is not only their collectivity, but their visibility, their conspicuous publicness that has implications for how we think about cultural citizenship. There is something of that here too, that what is compelling about what happened online is not only how information was circulated, but visibility of that circulation.

At the risk of over-stating, could we consider the pivotal role of social media use (and not the technologies themselves) as something that may have not brought about a revolution, but accelerated the formation of a manner of public sphere surrounding it? That it catalyzed and amplified one of the critical steps towards any politicized public, which is the recognition and articulation of itself as such?

The impact I think isn’t about the events are they were happening, but how we document for posterity. That in tagging tweets with a hashtag like #jan25, we were not only ensuring that they were included in information that was circulating in the moment. We were also making a declaration about its relevance and inclusion into the historical document of that moment. In lock-step with the recognition of a public as such is the increasing collective self-awareness of the historical. What is potentially transformative is the ability to collectively participate in the process of historicization, to influence the terms and organizing criteria for inclusion into the historical discourse through meta-data. And that ability is dynamic, accretive, and fluid in ways and at a scale that simply wasn’t possible before. Not to mention that the first major tag that blew up was a date — a clear recognition of the historical moment.

What are the implications of this sort of networked politics? Or what my close friend and fellow cms-alum Lan Xuan Le called a “flashmob politics” (a phrase that nicely encapsulates both excitement for the potential power of collective energy and the fear of that it may ultimately be impotent in creating lasting change). How does the use of these technologies change the ways we negotiate — articulate, mark, possess, surveille, construct — space, information, mobility, history?

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