Monday, 14 February 2011

Mobile Twitter apps won't put food on the table

The potential for Facebook and Twitter to help social activists organize and share information is well known. How important these social media tools actually are for collective action remains less clear. In 2009, many of us first heard of an uprising in Moldova thanks to Twitter. Subsequently, tweets from post-election protests in Iran were "live-blogged" on sites like the Huffington Post. Time magazine quickly labelled Twitter the "medium of the moment" after the U.S. State Department asked the micro-blogging service to postpone scheduled maintenance downtime during the Iranian protests. Social media quickly became the darling of those who supported the protests, particularly those sitting in front of their laptops in the developed world.

Watching recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, my colleague Angela asked whether these "revolutions will be Facebooked?" Social media moved directly to the fore in Egypt when the authorities detained and then eventually released Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, Wael Ghonim. Ghonim had administered a Facebook group that helped organize protesters and for a while at the height of the protests, he communicated solely through social media. Surely his detention hints to the seriousness with which regimes at risk view the threat of social media.

On the other hand, folks like Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov call those who overemphasize social media's role in civil activism "cyber-" or "digital-utopians." Gladwell argues that the revolution won't be twittered because social media build weak ties, rather than the strong ties needed to galvanize "high risk" social activism. Morozov's recent book The Net Delusion deflates cyber-utopianism differently: in every way social media empowers protesters, he says, it can equally empower the powers that be. As @nancyscola pointed out on Twitter yesterday: "Egyptian revolutionaries seemed to have been blessed with a regime extraordinarily bad at the Internet." Iran's government, in contrast, may be more internet savvy, as their post-protest crackdowns in 2009 seem to show.

Across the Twitterverse at present the debate is now coming full circle. Jay Rosen, a well-known professor at NYU, lambasts what he calls the "Twitter can't topple dictators" genre. Rosen says the nay-sayers are simplifying the cyber-utopian position. They aren't bothering to address the interesting question of how social media tools have changed the balance of power between citizens and their governments, he says. Jeff Jarvis from CUNY also criticizes Gladwell and Morozov for their "curmudgeonry." Facebook and Twitter didn't topple Mubarak, he acknowledges, but some of the Egyptians who did organized themselves with these social media tools. Much as Gutenberg's printing press empowered Martin Luther to disseminate his 95 theses back in the 16th century.

Amidst all the history lessons, sociology lectures, and name-calling (and the associated tweets, links, and status updates) a lot of web traffic has been driven to all sides of the debate... without the discussion advancing very far. Indeed, some see the glass half-empty, while others see it half-full.

Nonetheless, a few common threads are emerging from the polemic. All sides agree that social media have altered the way that both social activists and governments organize themselves and communicate. But whether optimistic or pessimistic about the democratizing potential of social media tools, everyone can also agree that a mobile phone with a Twitter app won't provide jobs to the unemployed overnight, or put food on the table of the hungry.

As Google's Wael Ghonim tweeted a few hours ago: "Just a clarification to all Egyptians: I don't belong to any political alliance. I don't support anyone for presidency. That's not my role." While the web 2.0 tools may have helped keep a crowd of unhappy citizens from becoming an angry mob, it is up to traditional political processes and local institutions to pick up the pieces after the crowd disperses. It is citizens, not Twitter, nor Facebook, nor Google, who will need to build a responsive and well-functioning government that can provide adequate services to the people. A month after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, the thousands of young Tunisians fleeing by sea to Europe remind us that picking up the pieces after the crowd disperses is often easier said than done.

Chris Garroway

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