Last week media theorist and writer Jay Rosen coined a new genre; ‘Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators’, it’s called. The genre takes some knowns:
• Since the invention of social media there have been uprisings and revolutions: Iran, Moldova, Tunisia, Egypt, and more
• Social media helps ‘sex up’ the reporting of these situations through its dynamism, immediacy, on-the-ground reporting
• Some ‘get carried away’ by the sexing up, mistaking it for journalism
• Some others get worried about all this focus on social media as ‘revolution’, so have to remind people that ‘it’s not that simple’
Followed by some corollaries – aka the defining characteristics of the genre:
1.) Nameless fools are staking maximalist claims. 2.) No links we can use to check the context of those claims. 3.) The masses of deluded people make an appearance so they can be ridiculed. 4.) Bizarre ideas get refuted with a straight face. 5.) Spurious historicity. 6.) The really hard questions are skirted.
Rosen’s recent examples of Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators include:
Rosen has since written an aftermath post, linking to the many writers who have responded to the ideas raised in his original piece. Makes stimulating reading.
This debate led me to thinking about how technology relates to social movements, not for the participants in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc, but for the observers experiencing a kind of ‘participatory revolution’ – because technology and social media have changed how we observe and experience global events, and in ways that do seem new.
When the motto ‘We are all Egyptian now’ flew around the Twitterverse, it was because people felt involved in the struggle, closely following events through Twitter, Facebook and the streaming of independent media, like Al Jazeera. Observers were relating in a way that they did not, say, with the Tibetan struggle, or the struggle for independence in West Papua. People may have cared equally about these struggles, but the majority did not experience them in a real-time way, with footage and eyewitness accounts to boot.
Aggregated social media and more traditional media played a very important role in making those beyond Egypt’s borders aware of the Jan25 movement. When combined with people on the ground and independent journalists, it made for a continuity of media: instant updates on twitter, as well as individuals participating in the protests, interspersed with traditional media. (Sharif Kouddous’s reporting via Twitter and Democracy Now! being an excellent example.) It certainly gives the impression that we don’t need a dedicated 24-hour news service – the 24-hour news cycle exists without it.
That said it was this combination of social media, citizen journalism and independent reporting that made for quality coverage of the movement. Not having the same resources as larger and more established media organisations, however, it’s hard to say how long these individuals and groups could maintain the coverage if the movements continued.
Something else to consider is the limitation of our social networks. We didn’t know what certain sections of the Egyptian public thought. Organised labour, for instance, took some time to take a visible role in the Jan25 movement. Was that because they weren’t on Twitter, or hadn’t adapted to those tools?
That’s a rhetorical question but does lead to an even more critical question: how many people in Australia are not on social media, did not stream Al Jazeera, and, consequently, the experience they have of the Jan25 movement was limited to the mainstream media’s distant gaze?