My last blog post argued that too many commentators on the recent events in Tunisia/Egypt/Yemen/etc. have become hamstrung by the “internet revolution” frame—advocates and opponents alike tend to orient their arguments with respect to it. But beneath the headlines, it turns out there’s a sprawling assortment of overlapping and conflicting viewpoints about the internet and revolutionary politics waiting to be teased apart. This blog post will begin this sorting process by proceeding through items 1 and 2 of the following analytical to-do list (I will address items 3 and 4 in a subsequent post):
- Develop a rough typology of recent claims about the internet and political revolutions.
- Distinguish which claim types require or imply one another, which are compatible with one another, and which conflict.
- Identify the kinds of empirical data that would be required to substantiate each.
- Use this information to judge how well each claim type is supported by the available evidence.
1: A Rough Typology
I begin task 1 with a grounded typology that incorporates some of the recent online claims about the internet’s role in revolutionary politics. In keeping with the internet’s inherent epistemological inclusiveness, I do not distinguish here between academics, industry observers, journalists, and pundits—topical relevance is the only criterion for consideration. The following table introduces the typology: the left column contains the snappy names I’ll refer to each type by, and the right column contains several representative quotes for each. This typology should not be considered exhaustive, nor should it imply that the quoted sources hold their imputed views to the exclusion of other opinions not listed. My argument here is primarily that the types described below are worthy of discussion because each represents the views of more than one prominent observer.
The four claim types I’ll discuss are the net as dissident’s advantage, the net as public sphere platform, the net as citizen journalism platform, and the net as politically irrelevant revolutionary nicety (sorry, forgot to change this the first time around).
|Claim type||Representative statements|
|The net as dissident’s advantage: Holds that (1) the internet confers disproportionate advantages upon previously disenfranchised political activists; and (2) that these advantages are substantial, if not decisive, in the success of some revolutionary movements.||Cory Doctorow:
|The net as public sphere platform: Holds that the existence of weak-tie publics distinct from the state is an important precondition for revolution, and that the net’s primary revolutionary impact is in facilitating their formation.||Clay Shirky:
|The net as citizen journalism platform: Holds that the net’s primary revolutionary influence lies in empowering citizens to report breaking news both to one another and to international audiences during political crises.||Jillian York:
|The net as revolutionary nicety: Holds that the internet contributes little to the activist side of revolutionary politics.||Malcolm Gladwell:
2: Necessity, Compatibility, and Conflict
The most obvious conflict in this typology is between the dissident’s advantage (DA) and revolutionary nicety (RN) stances. Both address roughly the same macro level of analysis, and both are fundamentally about collective action, yet each draws opposite conclusions about the role of the internet in political revolutions. According to DA, disempowered dissidents benefit from online tactics disproportionately compared to incumbent powers, which supports the general notion of the internet as a freedom-enhancing technology (on balance). DA adherents cite the proliferation of online trace data (tweets, Facebook posts, Youtube videos, DDOS attacks, etc.) from the front lines as evidence that the internet is supporting substantial change-making activity. This perspective is often stereotyped as glib technological determinism, a conclusion partially supported by breathless headlines that rhapsodize about “Twitter revolutions!” and similar. But good-faith readings of the claims themselves reveal that most of them are about the degree of importance of the net as a revolutionary tool.
In contrast, the RN position marshals the cold skepticism of the jaded techno-realist to argue that the internet does not substantially enhance the resistive repertoire. One unifying aspect of this view is the stringent criterion that in order for the net to matter at all, it must be an unqualified sine qua non for the revolution in question. As might be expected, every revolution in history fails this test. (Has any single communication technology ever been a sine qua non for any revolution?) For RN advocates the fact that revolutions have occurred throughout history is proof that communication technologies don’t matter—revolutions will use whatever channels are at hand to connect, organize, and take action. The tweets, Facebook groups, and DDOS attacks of today are close analogues of the posters, samizdat, and nonviolent resistance tactics of revolutions past. Revolutionary politics is at bottom concerned with ultimate causes such as economic- and corruption-related grievances—everything else is just details.
Both of these claims are quite broad—they draw conclusions about the revolutionary role of the internet as a whole without generally making fine distinctions between different applications. This makes empirical assessment difficult, a topic I’ll discuss at greater length in my next blog post.
The remaining two positions, public sphere platform (PS) and citizen journalism platform (CJ), differ from DA and RN in specifying mechanisms through which the net contributes to revolutionary politics. Both can be seen as narrower claims that are essentially consistent with DA, though many adherents might dismiss DA as overly optimistic and vague. The central assumption of PS is that a robust public sphere—that is, a network of conversing citizens free of state sponsorship or surveillance—vastly increases a society’s chances of implementing political change through collective action. More so than the internet at large, social media have become key platforms upon which these national public spheres produce themselves. In some versions of this thesis, the conversations don’t even have to be explicitly political, but they must be ongoing and far-reaching. When a potential proximate cause emerges, such as Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, preexisting public spheres can be quickly mobilized for effective action.
CJ neither requires nor conflicts with PS , but rather is a largely independent claim. It holds that once the wheels of revolution begin to turn in networked societies, citizen journalists play a significant role in distributing information among both the national polity and international audiences. This role is particularly important in authoritarian states which own or otherwise control most forms of mass media. Enterprising citizens of these states can use digital media to capture the attentions of local and distant audiences with credible dispatches from the front lines. CJ’s key testable assertion is that this is the internet’s primary function for dissidents during times of revolution.
One point to note here is that RN is fundamentally inconsistent with the other three positions. More specifically, it may acknowledge that some public spheres or journalistic endeavors are partially internet-based, but it contends that this fact is inconsequential. PS and CJ have points of overlap—citizen journalism is often a crucial input into public-sphere discussion—but PS is mostly about the essential preconditions for revolution whereas CJ is more concerned with the dynamics of communication during times of political crisis. The main conceptual fault lines in this typology lie between:
- RN and everything else (internet doesn’t matter vs. does)
- RN & DA and PS & CJ (macro vs. meso levels of analysis)
As noted above, PS and CJ are not really separated by a fault line. However, further research is necessary to better sketch the relationship between the two and the circumstances under which they do and do not coexist.
Stay tuned for part 2 (now available!), in which I will attempt to address the empirical evidence for each claim…
ADDENDUM 2/8/11: The response to this post has exceeded my highest expectations, especially given that I posted it on a Saturday afternoon. It is now my most-read piece ever by at least an order of magnitude—if I’d known that in advance I would have polished it a bit more. In this addendum I will respond briefly to some of the comments I’ve received and point to additional pieces that will problematize my neat little scheme.
- Clay Shirky generously responds to my framing of these claims in an extended comment, suggesting some conceptual extensions and providing key examples that will be relevant to my next post. In particular, he suggests adding an additional category—”Net as Path to Informed Citizenship”—that emphasizes net access as a critical input for revolutionary politics. My take is that this is, among other things, the consumptive flip side of CJ—the ability to access information freely vs. the ability to produce and distribute it. Unrestricted net access is a crucial assumption of citizen journalism as an enterprise: after all, what good is the latter if revolutionary audiences cannot witness it? Shirky also implicitly observes a key weakness of this typology, which is that while it functions well as a set of categories of what people have said recently about the net and revolutions, it’s somewhat less successful as a general MECE scheme of digital activism types. Sean Aday and colleagues attempt something like this in their recent article “Blogs and Bullets: Evaluating the Impact of New Media on Conflict,” though they frame their analysis too strongly in causal terms IMO.
- Evgeny Morozov expressed in a private note that he may not fall entirely into the RN box, citing a recent column in which he notes that the net can serve as a weapon against social progress in the hands of illiberal regimes. Stan, responding in comments, makes a very similar point. This perspective, which might be called “the net as dissident’s disadvantage,” is definitely missing above—mostly because I couldn’t find many thought pieces embracing it in the context of recent events in the Arab world (although I’m sure they’re out there)—and it suggests that Morozov straddles a line between it and RN.
- David Parry clarifies his position on the transformative influence of digital networks in a followup to the post linked above. While endorsing his position in the typology, he argues that we need to radically rethink past notions of “publics” because they are too closely bound up in a communicative culture structured by print. I agree, but I still think the basic logic of democracy requires something close to the very general definition of “publics” used above.
- Also from comments, Sami Kallinen “would see the typology useful if it is not trying to describe the ontology of these social technologies and techniques but a sort of snapshot of the effect of them at this very moment.” The speed of technological development and widespread social diffusion of disruptive technologies make this an important point to bear in mind. As technologies are introduced, adopted, and discarded, their meanings and purposes change—and the rate at which this is happening today poses serious challenges to the task of generating useful concepts and theories about them. But nearly all social theories of technology must confront this problem, and I don’t think anyone claims to have developed a unified, final theory of political uses of digital networks. (And I really hope no one does—it’d put me out of business!)