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Meanland: On participatory revolution

Egypt and twitterLast 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:

Mubarak steps down. But let’s be clear – Twitter had nothing to do with it.
What’s Fueling Mideast Protests? It’s More Than Twitter
People, Not Things, Are The Tools Of Revolution

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?

Jacinda Woodhead is Overland’s deputy editor. She is in the midst of a PhD project about abortion in Australia and nonfiction as political intervention.

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Comments

  1. IMO, the Rosen piece was a bit silly. Sure, the knee-jerk debunkings of the role of the internet were often glib but no more so than the (equally popular) ‘Twitter brings the revolution’ articles. I mean, that’s a genre that dates back to the anti-corporate movement: in the wake of the Melbourne S11 rally, any number of journalists assured us that the whole affair had been organised on the internet, something that simply wasn’t true.
    Obviously, social media is playing a role in the revolutionary wave, and it’s gonna be important for the Left to work out exactly what that means. But let’s also talk about (for instance) what the revolt means about neo-liberalism and the role of the labour movement and imperialism and a whole bunch of other less sexy sounding subjects.

  2. If you wanted to push right now with the people in the Middle East on the twitter and elsewhere, regardless of whether you knew about international politics or not, this would be a lot better than doing nothing at all. The people of Egypt did it with the help of the internet through citizen journalism and other means. I truly believe that right now with this window open to us if we used people power to circulate articles and blog posts from people inside the Middle East wanting our support then we really could do something great. Now is not a good time to be wondering whether we are doing anything or not. Let’s stop talking about it and just do it. Use your networks. Organize it. The Middle Eastern people who are pro-democracy are in the majority. This is a very good time to act.

  3. “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?”

    I didn’t follow the Egyptian revolution on Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr but on blogs and the websites of the Guardian, Al Jazeera and CNN. Sure these sites may have received some of their report via Twitter but it wasn’t necessary to follow it directly to know what was going on.

    “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?”

    Workers, as individuals were involved in the protests from the beginning and furthermore the entire uprising was more or less inspired by a wave of mass strikes beginning in in 2006. Were these strikes organised by Twitter? I don’t know but hedge a bet that they weren’t. I am happy to be proven wrong.

    The delay in workers participating in as a class for itselfmay be due less to not having access to Twitter and more to the time needed for workers to gather and work out via debate and argument what role they were going to play in the revolt.

    Besides all this, social media, as well as mobile phone coverage was largely cut off by the regime and yet we still had a revolution…

  4. It is undeniable that social media is a powerful force in political activism and did indeed play a major role in the first stage of the revolution in Egypt and before that Iran 2009 which was arguably the first Twitter-fed mass protest. Its usefulness and limitations are now being seen in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. But in the end it is what I would call an accelerant of change, not a key driver. The events we are witnessing in the Arabian region and also in the UK and US are mass movements of real people in real time occupying real space and engaging in sustained acts of non violent civil disobedience for reasons that can no longer be dealt with by other means. These are very old school tactics which is not at all to dismiss the turbo charging effects of social media. I will be taking this up in more detail in a forthcoming post with reference to the influence of the Serbian resistance group Otpor!, its spin off CANVAS and the underlying impetus of Gene Sharp. Thanks to Jack for taking the time to post this.

  5. \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?\

    Aye – or are on social media but only to update their status (or whatever). The bits and pieces of mainstream news reporting on Egypt certainly seemed to be painting a picture to support the autocracy/theocracy model only & certainly did not have the heart of the online news.

    Nothing in this post indicates to me that the author imagines social networking to play a larger role than the people who took to the streets.

  6. Wow, I feel like a lot of the ideas in the post have been conflated or even overlooked.

    David, in the above article I acknowledged the importance of mainstream and traditional media in the Tunisia, Jan25 et al coverage (though I don’t know how much one could have learned from CNN).

    All of those organisations however, even AL Jazeera and Democracy Now, relied on social media. So what distortive role does this reliance on social media play? Re the labour movement, my point was: did we not know about the role of labour in the uprisings earlier because the media wasn’t interested in talking to the movement? (Presumably, this was the case.)

    I don’t think I ever claimed Twitter was the catalyst or conduit for the ‘revolution’. In fact, I was kind of arguing that it wasn’t. Rather, the way the revolution was observed is different to how we have observed previous global events. In the past, versions and narratives have largely been dictated and controlled by traditional [and mainstream] media.

    Regardless of communication devices, the workers’ involvement wasn’t clearly communicated by any media organisation to begin with. Any role they played was initially anecdotal. For all the things social media and technology can do, nobody has been able to articulate what kinds of roles people have been playing in the movement.

    It was only later that the workers’ movements were accentuated and we learned that they came out about working conditions and pay. The independent labour movement was out earlier, however. Any discussion of the organised and state-supported labour movement should be being separated from the independent labour movement, imho. The independent labour movement has been active and critical of the government for a number of years and they were out early on – this seems like a huge distinction.

    As we all know, ordinary workers going to a mass demo is different to organised workers going to a mass demo.

    Anyway, the crux of my argument was this: what distortive role is social media playing in these uprisings? We do not have an even distribution of social media. There are clear biases, even in Australia, about who has access and is using this media. Social media, just like commercial media and independent media, is only representative of those who follow it. Take ABC Drum commenters as another example – you can’t expect them to be representative of anything other than ABC Drum commenters.

    On a final note, we shouldn’t underestimate the ability to communicate with each other. Any technology that helps us to do that during periods of resistance – be they mobile phones enabling snap rallies, or Twitter providing real-time updates to global audiences – is useful, and should be recognised as such.

  7. Indeed I agree Jack, especially on this last point…’On a final note, we shouldn’t underestimate the ability to communicate with each other. Any technology that helps us to do that during periods of resistance – be they mobile phones enabling snap rallies, or Twitter providing real-time updates to global audiences – is useful, and should be recognised as such.’

    I always reflect on the s11 demonstration. On the morning of Day 1 mobile phones were difficult to use to communicate with others and move people to cover weak blockade points 1) Because there were so many people on them and reception was terrible, 2) Because it is hard to use them when there are thousands of people yelling etc, 3) Not everyone has the same equipment & 4) there is as much misinformation as correct information and it is hard to prioritise.
    Any new way of communicating is good, but it does not necessarily change the nature of what the communication is about (in ALL or MOST ways) and may in fact present as many challenges and opportunities. It seems to me that the key thing is still whether there are enough people at a place or taking certain action to make countervailing forces inept. Whether Twitter, leaflets or landlines bring those people to the location seems pretty irrelevant.

    And I can’t help but think that Twitter and Facebook make protests and other events feel different from the outside simply because the immediacy allows the viewer/user to feel part of what is going on (as opposed to reading it the next day in a Newspaper) and this is conflated with seeing their use as a tool in protests as playing a fantastically different role to other forms of communication.

    And even where the immediacy of knowing in Cairo that there are protests in Suez and Alexandria gives demonstrators confidence to fight on etc, if people are being massacred in those other locations the immediacy can have a deleterious effect.

  8. Pingback: Tweets that mention Meanland: On participatory revolution « Overland literary journal -- Topsy.com

  9. Yes, well, that’s it, isn’t it!
    Obviously social networking — like any modern communication technology — becomes incredibly useful in a political upheaval.
    At the same time, there’s lot of countries that have access to Twitter where there’s no revolts taking place. In the abstract, the people always have the power to bring down a dictator (we are many, they are few, etc); the real question is under what circumstances that power gets realised.
    Or, to put it another way, you can’t imagine a mass political movemen today that doesn’t use social media. But social media doesn’t create mass political movements. By and large, we’re still contemplating the same kind of debates and problems we always were: organisation, leadership, strategy, etc.

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