Political revolutions are complex things; this should go without saying. But many of the commentators on the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt seem to have ignored this fact in favor of social-media triumphalism, a recent variant of a more general strain of cyber-utopianism that dates back to the early days of the web. I take it as given that this notion is an almost entirely wrongheaded consequence of the need to make succinct statements (for tweet and headline purposes) about complicated social phenomena. But the prevalence of talk about Twitter/Facebook/Wikileaks/etc revolutions has exhibited an irritating secondary effect: it has prompted many charitable, intelligent, and learned individuals to react to it. That is, credible experts have spent far too much time responding to the patently ridiculous media frame that social media somehow “caused” these popular movements, rather than explaining the role of communication (and social media specifically) within revolutionary politics.
As evidence, I submit the following cavalcade of headlines:
- Tweeting Tyrants Out of Tunisia: Global Internet at Its Best (Wired, 1/14/11)
- The First Twitter Revolution? (Ethan Zuckerman for Foreign Policy, 1/14/11)
- Revolution 2.0: Rebooting Tunisia (ReadWriteWeb, 1/14/11)
- Was What Happened in Tunisia a Twitter Revolution? (GigaOm, 1/14/11)
- The Cyberactivists Who Helped Topple a Dictator (Newsweek, 1/15/11)
- Tunisia: That ‘WikiLeaks Revolution’ meme (Christian Science Monitor, 1/15/11)
- Tunisia: Can We Please Stop Talking About ‘Twitter Revolutions’? (Radio Free Europe, 1/15/11)
- A reader: Tunisia, Twitter, revolutions and the role of the Internet (GovFresh, 1/18/11)
- Technology’s role in Tunisia (CJR, 1/20/11)
- Did tweeting topple Tunisia? (LA Times, 1/23/11)
- Will Tunisia’s ‘Internet revolution’ endure? (Committee to Protect Journalists, 1/25/11)
- The Tunisia Twitter Revolution That Wasn’t (Mother Jones, 1/27/11)
- What’s Happening in Egypt is Not a Social Media Revolution (The Trial Warrior Blog, 1/29/11)
- Spotlight Again Falls on Web Tools and Change (New York Times, 1/30/11)
That many have chosen to frame these stories in this way is not a novel observation, as the CJR and GovFresh pieces demonstrate. My point is that in setting the terms of the debate among journalists, specialists, and the public, this frame has served as a distraction from more interesting and relevant questions. Whether a commentator agrees with it or not, the conversation too often remains at the level of “is this a Twitter revolution or not?” rather than inquiring as to how Twitter and other social media fit into a broader ecosystem of culture, historical grievances, media tools, and political circumstances. To be sure, some of the articles above discuss these issues, but even then they must first devote significant amounts of space to dispensing with the myth of the technology-driven revolution. And by doing so, they pass up the opportunity to create new frames for how to understand 21st-century revolutions.
Egypt isn’t the last grassroots revolutionary movement we’ll see that will use social media, so I suggest we move beyond the myth to develop new frames that do justice to the many factors that contribute to citizen-driven politics. A first step here would be to consider the role of communication more generally in such movements, and move from there into exploring the technologies that facilitate it. A preliminary inquiry might include questions such as: What has to happen before thousands turn out simultaneously in the streets to confront repressive regimes? How do grassroots actions differ between nations with more- and lesser-developed communications infrastructures? Who is most likely to participate in these actions, who is left out, and how does access to technology (as well as literacy) mediate this divide? Under what circumstances are social media likely to be more and less relevant? And what happens to movements when internet access is completely cut a la Egypt?
Look, I get it—people want to be able to draw the sweeping conclusions, to develop the big, all-encompassing theories that draw lots of attention. And there probably isn’t much we can do to keep the media from misframing the next non-Twitter revolution—after all, the role of for-profit media is to attract eyeballs, not necessarily to shed light. But those of us in the light-shedding business ought to think a bit harder about crafting ledes and headlines that acknowledge the complexity of our subject matter. After all, that’s what the majority of folks who don’t click through will take away from our pieces. Best to give them something more helpful to think about than a simple yes or no response to the media meme du jour.