The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article

Feb.
13
It’s a genre that’s starting to get a swelled head about itself. Here’s why I say that.

I found it! I announced on Twitter yesterday. “It” was the generic Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators article. I said it had everything, meaning: every identifying mark and mandatory cliché needed to lift a mere example to the exalted status of genre-defining classic.

First, let’s be clear about the genre in question.

It’s hard to know how much weight to assign to the Internet and its social media tools–Facebook and Twitter–in recent uprisings like Iran and Moldova in 2009, Tunisia this year and Egypt’s stunning January 25th revolution. Because the tools are still fairly new they naturally draw a lot of attention from analysts, journalists and headline writers looking for a “sexy” newsy sidebar to the main event. And inevitably some people get carried away. But then a strange thing happens. Even more people get worried that everyone is getting carred away. And they decide to bring us all back down to earth. “It’s not that simple!” they cry.

The name I am giving to these cries is Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators, a genre that is starting to get a swelled head about itself. Here it is in condensed form, from a lead-in to an On the Media segment:

Demonstrators flooded the streets in Tunisia this week calling for an end to corruption and ousting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Many have attributed the wave of protests to the rise of the internet and social media in a country notorious for its censorship but Foreign Policy blogger Marc Lynch says it’s not that simple.

As if we thought it was. Some recent examples of Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators:

Mubarak steps down. But let’s be clear – Twitter had nothing to do with it. (Will Heaven, The Telegraph, UK)

Does Egypt Need Twitter? (Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker.)

What’s Fueling Mideast Protests? It’s More Than Twitter (Daniel Kravets, Wired.com)

Revolts Don’t Have to be Tweeted (Laurie Pennie, The New Statesman. added Feb. 15)

The best example I have found ran in TechCrunch: People, Not Things, Are The Tools Of Revolution by Devin Coldewey. It has everything that makes the form go.

* First, it objects to statements by nameless fools. These statements are not quoted. (“Some are using that moment to praise the social media tools used by some of the protesters, and the role the internet played in fueling the revolution.”)

* It refuses to link to the claims it is criticizing so we can see for ourselves what the claim and its context were. (Coldeway provides exactly one link, to the Gladwell post I just mentioned.)

* It posits that out there somewhere are masses of loud and deluded people–cyber-utopians, they are sometimes called–who think it is as simple as “Twitter topples dictators,” or “add Internet and you get revolution.”

Malcom Gladwell has become the whipping boy of the internet for having [said] that the social web is something that breeds weak connections and requires only a minimum of participation. He was right then, and he’s right now; he wrote a short post the other day defying the gloating masses (sensibly, but haughtily…)

* It refutes ideas that sound bizarre to begin with, so bizarre that you immediately want to know who believes them. (“Facebook greased the gears, but it isn’t the gears…”)  But of course you can’t know. That’s how the genre works. (From the wired.com piece: “The dozen or more protesters that self-immolated in Egypt didn’t do it for the tweets.”)

* It reaches back several centuries to create the appearance of historical analysis but the gesture is trivial. (“Twitter and Facebook are indeed useful tools, but they are not tools of revolution — at least, no more than Paul Revere’s horse was.”)

* By ranting about the absurdity of maximalist claims, the author takes a pass on the really hard and really interesting question: how does the Internet affect the balance of forces in a contest between the state and people fed up with the state?

It came to pass that 2011 was when the Egyptian people could take no more — one might say it reached its tipping point — and the long-running movement became a revolution. It’s no surprise that people used the internet to organize — that’s how people communicate right now. It is easy to imagine this happening five years ago, or five years from now. Five years ago we would likely be championing the mobile phone as the savior of Egypt, as without it, how would people have communicated where the police barricades were, or found each other in the crowds? Never mind that the phone would have had little to do with the reason there were crowds to begin with. Five years from now, who knows what we might be crediting when (let us hope) other regimes are bent to the will of the people?

In other words, tools are tools, Internet schminternet. Revolutions happen when they happen. Whatever means are lying around will get used. Next question!

So these are the six signs that identify the genre, Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators. 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.

If that’s the genre, what’s the appeal? Beats me. I think this is a dumb way of conducting a debate. But I cannot deny its popularity. So here’s a guess: almost everyone who cares about such a discussion is excited about the Internet. Almost everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away. When we nod along with Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators we’re assuring ourselves that our excitement is contained, that we’re being realistic, mature, grown-up about it.

This feeling is fake. A real grown-up understands that the question is hard, that we need facts on the ground before we can start to answer it. Twitter brings down governments is not a serious idea about the Internet and social change. Refuting it is not a serious activity. It just feels good… for a moment.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a contributing editor to the Huffington Post who covered the Internet and politics when he was at the Washington Post, wrote his own piece on this phenomenon. He asked me what I thought, so I told him:

“Wildly overdrawn claims about social media, often made with weaselly question marks (like: ‘Tunisia’s Twitter revolution?’) and the derisive debunking that follows from those claims (‘It’s not that simple!’) only appear to be opposite perspectives. In fact, they are two modes in which the same weightless discourse is conducted,” Jay Rosen, the noted media critic and professor at New York University, wrote me in an email recently. “Revolutionary hype is social change analysis on the cheap. Debunking is techno-realism on the cheap. Neither one tells us much about our world.”

Rosen continued: “Almost everyone knows it’s not as simple as saying Twitter or Facebook ’cause’ revolutions. Almost everyone knows it’s foolish to discount social media and peer to peer communication as new and potentially disruptive forces. Grown-ups trying to puzzle through what is actually happening will have to leave the sandbox in which the debunkers and their straw man playmates throw headlines at each other.”

I want to end this with a plea for mystery. Factors are not causes. It is a mystery why uprisings occur when they do. The grievances are usuallly old ones, and yet for a very long time the population suffered them rather than overturn the system. David Hume (1711-1776) wrote about this mystery:

“Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”

Let’s add the Internet to what Hume said and see what we get.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

Now this doesn’t happen often: A correspondent for The Guardian, who was on the scene in the Middle East, basically confirms everything in this post.

Rosen is right. And when I began researching this subject I too started out as a sceptic. But what I witnessed on the ground in Tunisia and Egypt challenged my preconceptions, as did the evidence that has emerged from both Libya and Bahrain.

Here’s a concept: instead of another Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators column, go out and talk to as many smart people as you can about the particular factors that may account for a wave of uprisings at this time in these countries and then list the ones that come up a lot. Much more valuable. Just remember: factors are not causes.

The road to Tahrir. Just what it says: how the Egyptian opposition got to Jan. 25, 2011. The blogosphere was a critical factor years before the current round of events. Via David Campbell in the comments.

Aaron Bady has written a superb follow-up to this post: Knowing and Unknowing the Egyptian Public. It moves the ball way down the field. (Italics mine.)

My version of Rosen’s argument, then, would be this: it is a fantasy of a particular kind of credulousness, which is then so soberly refuted (by sober debunkers) that the overriding impression left for the audience is only of the performance of seriousness itself, and of the credulous enthusiasm which has been dismissed…. I would add to Rosen’s list another generic trait: the invocation of “people will always” as an explanation, something that always strikes me as a sign of a weak and unadventurous mind. People don’t “always” do anything. People are unpredictable.

That’s an excellent addition.

Interview with a Tunisian activist arrested for his activities on behalf of the revolt there. What he has to say about the use of the Internet is directly relevant to this post.

In a commentary on this post at techpresident, Nancy Scola says there are lot of benefits to the debunking cycle.

A fine example of the genre in gear is this column from David Rieff in The New Republic: The Reality of Revolution. In which we learn (stop me if you knew this already…) that, though social networks matter a lot “they do not incarnate freedom, do not bring about some final, heaven-like stage of human history.” After he gets the spitting-at-cyber-utopianism part out of the way, Rieff has some strong points to make about the economic consequences of revolution. The question he wants the chattering classes to focus on is: is life better for the poor? He thinks the narcissistic focus on social media will cause us to miss that. (via Carrie Brown-Smith in the comments.)

But we’re making progress! Rieff’s piece has one link intended to document wave after wave of cybe-utopian techno-babble. It’s a post by Tim Connor, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, which does have some “democracy? there’s an app for that” silliness to it. This is exactly what I meant by a “weightless discourse.”

Via Twitter comes a suggestion from Mark Lynch: Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics, an academic report that digs into the complexity of this issue.

Zeynep Tufekci wrote a fascinating post on how social networks like the leaderless one in Egyptian revolution will nonetheless develop outsized personalities. “Relatively flat networks can quickly generate hierarchical structures even without any attempt at a power grab by emergent leaders or by any organizational, coordinated action,” she says. “In fact, this often occurs through a perfectly natural process, known as preferential attachment, which is very common to social and other kinds of networks.”

Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution:” Looking Under the Lampost? A more sensible version of Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators:

Narratives matter. We use them to make sense of the world, and we use that understanding to make decisions. Narrative is “the simple order that consists in being able to say: ‘When that had happened, then this happened.’ We like the illusions of this sequence, its acceptable appearance of causality: it has the look of necessity.” (Frank Kermode, “The Sense of an Ending”, p127.)

So is the Egyptian rebellion a “Facebook Revolution”? There are reasons to think the narrative is exaggerated…

Exaggerated, yes. But the Facebook Revolution isn’t a narrative, or much of one. It’s really a headline. Its purpose is to arrest attention and announce that something exciting, different and pattern-breaking happened. The headlines in question do this not because the people writing them have confused or utopian ideas about social media; rather, they have old fashioned ideas about headlines and fresh “newsy” angles. I have more to say on this pattern–and it is a pattern–here.

Jeff Jarvis responds to this post with Gutenberg of Arabia.

Today, it occurs to me that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may be the Gutenberg press of the Middle East, tools like his that enable people to speak, share, and gather. Without those tools, could revolutions occur? Of course, curmudgeons, they could. Without people and their passion, could revolutions occur? Of course not, curmudgeons. But why are these revolutions occurring now? No, curmudgeons, we’ll never be able to answer that question.

I really like this 140-character summary of what I’m up to here:

Twitter doesn’t topple dictators! Does too! Does not! Does too! Does not! For loop exit, see @jayrosen_nyu analysis http://bit.ly/gcfbic

C.W. Anderson reacts at his Tumblr, where he tries to explain that weird feeling that “everyone” is saying something that no one is really saying.

Our methods of digesting debates have not caught up to our media system and our technological reality. Instead, boundaries of the playing field has gotten way less clear, and with confusion comes panic. .. this panic has created a situation where some folks feel like “everyone” is saying Twitter causes revolutions, even though no one worth reading is actually saying anything of the sort.

Over Twitter, the author of a Twitter Doesn’t Topple column sends me his, with a cover note: “I wrote the defining piece. I am king of the genre. Hear me cliche!” I don’t know about king, but he’s certainly a prince.

“You need a form of communication that is, for the moment, yours — a form with which the Old Regime is not, for the moment, comfortable.” My NYU colleague Mitchell Stephens, author of A History of News, on why new media and revolutions go together.

Greg Satell participated in the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine: Social Media and Revolution.

A previous example of genre analysis from PressThink: Here the genre is he said, she said journalism.

Even the President of the Council on Foreign Relations (a more establishment figure there cannot be) feels it necessary to participate in Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators. Richard Haass writes:

Indeed, social media are a significant factor, but their role has been exaggerated. It is hardly the first disruptive technology to come along: the printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and cassettes all posed challenges to the existing order of their day. And like these earlier technologies, social media are not decisive: they can be repressed by governments as well as employed by governments to motivate their supporters.

Counter-point to that: “The notion that information and communication technologies could almost singlehandedly cause a movement that leads to a regime change is passé, and no longer in need of refutation.”  Exactly! From atlantic.com.

“The bigger the claim, the bigger the evidential burden.” Correct! And that is why hype and hype-busting are both sandox activities. They lead to absurdly large claims, like “Twitter had nothing to do with it.”

Omri Ceren, a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California, thinks cyberutopianism has s serious grip on our instiutions and needs to be taken down. See his post: Jay Rosen Is Wrong: “Twitter Revolution” And “Facebook Revolution” Cyber-Utopians Really Do Think It’s That Simple.

Entire careers – academic, governmental, journalistic, etc – have been built by celebrating the political potential of new and social media technologies. The players who are pouring resources into University and government departments haven’t been overly-exuberant in referencing redoubtable caveats, in no small part because that wouldn’t be a very good institutional strategy. And since many of them those players have roles that crisscross academic, government, and journalistic contexts, their exhortations seep across sphere. To imply that unvarnished cyber-utopianism doesn’t and never existed impedes what Rosen’s actually after – getting past all that nonsense.

This is not a response to Ceren’s entire argument, but I don’t know any academics who’ve made their careers (which generally means getting tenure) by uncritically celebrating social media and seen resources rain down on them as a result. So I’m not sure what he’s talking about there. Jeff Jarvis embraces the label “Internet triumphalist,” so maybe he means Jeff.

For an example of Internet skepticism that eludes the stupidity of Twitter Doesn’t Topple Dictators do see The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us, Adam Gopnik’s beautifully written essay in The New Yorker.

And what do I think the role of social media has been in these uprisings? I think it’s a complex question, and here is where I would start.

From The Financial Times (Feb. 14, 2011):

Some caution about the “Facebook Revolution” is in order. The commentary about the role of social media in Egypt has become so breathless that it is easy to forget that the French managed to storm the Bastille without the help of Twitter – and the Bolsheviks took the Winter Palace without pausing to post photos of each other on Facebook.

Compare that to Peter Preston in the Observer (UK):

Lenin, Fidel Castro and Ayatollah Khomeini all managed to stage revolutions in the age before Twitter. The Soviet Union collapsed while Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook was still in short pants. So, just possibly, some of the credit for freedom’s wave as it washes around the Middle East belongs more to ordinary human beings standing together than to a tide of tweets.

By the way, Devin Coldeway, the author of the genre-defining piece talked about here, doesn’t use Twitter.

72 Comments

  1. Thoughtful. You put your finger on the point that is much ignored. Why do we want Twitter to be instrumental in change. This is a question that is worth looking at within the context of old versus new media.

    • Nick Bishop says:

      There's a neat one word answer to this: "chronocentricity", the fantasy of one generation that what they're achieving is more remarkable anything that's gone before. There's a Monty Python style sketch involving carrier pigeons and medieval revolutions to be made of out of the TCTD hoo-ha.

  2. Boz says:

    Love where you wind up, but it's sad that you spend a good third of the article doing the very same things you object to. Over the top maximalist claims about what others are saying, masses of deluded people to be ridiculed, spurious historicity, and skirting the really hard questions. It's not surprising that Coldewey doesn't ask or answer the question you as a journalism professor find important. That doesn't mean he's taking a pass – it means you expect him to conform to what you think is important and interesting. Ironically, you invoke the very same interestingness criterion Gladwell does, with almost exactly the same dismissive professorial tone.

    Why do *you* get to decide what the really hard and interesting questions are?  Maybe the hard question is – why do so many people take bizarre such bizarrely reductionist positions on the influence of the internet in situations like this?  Couldn't you fairly be said to have skirted that question? You lay out all the facts to justify it as an important, interesting question, but there are no answers to be found – you don't even propose to investigate it. And you're a journalism professor.  Moreover, you state, "Almost everyone knows it's not as simple as saying Twitter or Facebook 'cause' revolutions." Take a look – do you still think that's true? http://tinyurl.com/6gh3a5v Maybe it should be okay for people like Coldewey to suggest that we all calm down a bit and give credit where it's due – to the brave people who risked their lives to make this event happen – without being attacked and told to calm down.  I enjoy your articles when they're a little less mean.  Nice scholarship at the end – that's the stuff suitable for a book – hopefully you take some time to reflect before writing it.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I’m doing the same thing as Coldewey? I respectfully disagree. The people he criticizes have no names. Mine do have names. He uses no quotes from them. I use quotes. He has no links so we can see the context. I have many links to the genre I am talking about. He drastically simplifies the role of technology in uprisings, saying, essentially, whatever tools are lying around will get used. I try to complexify that question, linking to writers who try to do the same. So I don't think I am doing what he's doing at all.

      • Boz says:

        First, please know that I have great respect for your work and what you've been doing. I'll concede this – you only do *some* of the things Coldewey does – four of the six features of the genre you identify, by my count. But that's a nit.  On reflection, my real discomfort is with your claim that no one is making causal claims.  But that's just not true. No one is making sole-cause claims, but there are plenty of people making contributing-cause or drive-force type claims.  And they should. Yes, your "no one is saying this" line would tend to short-circuit the debate if it were true, but it's not. On reflection, I have two concerns with your tack:

        1. In a back-handed way, your rhetorical maneuvers delegitimize a class of perfectly reasonable claims about causation. e.g.; arguments of the form:
        – the free flow of information is a prerequisite to self-determination
        – access to the internet is currently a prerequisite to the free flow of information.

        2. Complexification has its consequences.  It's easy for the this-is-complex line of thinking to devolve into a series of irresolvable questions and irrelevant methodological quibbles. Yes, journalism professors need to get into the complexities – and I look forward to any work you do on that – but it's not at all silly to say that internet access and social media were a prime cause of the events in Egypt. You can crush the other side of the argument on the evidence rather than disarming people who are on your side.

        • Aneece says:

          Do you know what inhibits these slippery slope scenarios of yours, BOZ? Disagreeing with actual people and actual arguments. It’s only when real people engage in debate with phantoms like “some people” or “those who” that nuance and caveat get stripped away, and we start indulging in abstractions and absolutes. When public intellectuals engage with real people and their solid, particular words, the debate carries within it its own limiting factor. When addressing a defined target, one cannot resort to redactio ad absurdum in good faith, not without loosing the thinking portion of one’s audience, who can read the other guy, and see the discrepancy between their words and their caricature.

          • Boz says:

            Aneece, I’d love to engage with what you’re saying, but it’s a little hard to discern your point. Two specific problems with your post:

            1. You seem to condemn what you label slippery slope arguments on the one hand, and forgive them when made by people whose side of the argument you favor.

            2. Consequentialism is a very different thing than committing a slippery slope fallacy. I lay out the consequences of Rosen’s position for debates on net access and free flow of information as fundamental human right elsewhere in this thread. You do know there are serious policy proposals and actual diplomacy on this topic going on right now, do you not? That’s not a slippery slope argument, it’s an argument from the categorical imperative.

            If it’s all a mystery, as Professor Rosen would have it, then presumably it’s a mystery what the impact will be if free access to information is denied. That’s not a slippery slope argument; it’s a logical consequence of widespread, uncritical acceptance of causal arguments for platforms that deliver free access to information.

            In this respect, Dr. Rosen’s argument is very much like the historical revisionism now being practiced by other professors at universities situated in the United States — their argument being that the Civil War was an upheaval of uncertain origins. The list of potential causes so numerous and complex that claims the war was about slavery must be set aside as immature, slovenly, uninformed thinking. What’s the difference in Dr. Rosen’s argument? His revisionism took all of three days and not 100 years.

  3. Boz says:

    And a suggestion:  You really ought to institute a moratorium of at least several years before writing another genre criticism piece. It's just a cheap way of making fun of someone who doesn't have your lofty educational background or way with words. It's a proxy for more direct ad hominems. It's beneath you. Not that you withhold the ad hominems — "dumb," "a real grown up."  You might as well have written for the other side:  "I think this is a really dumb way of conducting a debate. But I cannot deny its popularity. So here's a guess: almost everyone who cares about such a discussion is excited about the Internet. Almost everyone is a little wary of being fooled by the amazing, too, of getting carried away. When we nod along with genre criticisms of Twitter Can't Topple Dictators we are assuring ourselves that our excitement is contained, that we're being realistic, mature, grown-up about it. #  (even though we stayed up all night writing the piece)

    This feeling is fake. A real grown-up understands that the question is hard, that we need facts on the ground before we can start to answer it. Twitter doesn't bring down governments is not a serious idea about the Internet and social change. Refuting it is not a serious activity. It just feels good.

    Other forms of critique – deconstruction, satire – beat genre criticism every time. Why not stick to things you're good at? And next time, how about waiting a while before hitting that post button? Nice is good.

    • Aneece says:

      As a follow up to this post, let me just say almost the precise opposite of what Boz just said. Thank you for your media criticism, Professor Rosen. You’ve helped clarify several nagging frustrations I’ve had with the media in this country. So often, the failures of journalism seem to come down to rhetorical gestures posing as thought. Also, in homage to Boz, let me use a semi-technical term in order to appear smart or in the know: Semiotics.

      • Boz says:

        More ad hominems. Name-calling is generally not regarded as a legitimate form of argument. At the very least, you’ve done nothing to actually engage with the substance of my critiques. Feel free to do so.

  4. A lovely essay and a great post, thanks Jay. The phenomenon you've described is, on one level  just another form of "he said, she said," with a bit of schadenfreude thrown in. This is hardly the first time that a trend/fad/celebrity has been built up, then torn down.So one thing that needs to be said is that the over-hype of social media is a direct cause of the current social media bashing.

    That said, I'm disappointed that you used only part of the On The Media quote. A key point being made was that the satellite channel Al Jazeera played as large a role as social media in the Tunesian (and I will add, Egytian) revolutions. Satellite TV news and social media arrived in the Arabic-speaking world around the same time; all are difficult to control; the impact of each is huge, and the impact of all together is – well, revolutionary.

    I agree that people should give serious thought to the role social media play in political events. But there has been way more thoughtful analysis out there about social media than there is about the profound effects of converged media on today's politics. Al Jazeera and social media were inseperable factors in Egypt, just as Fox News and social media are inseperable factors in the rise of the Tea Party. The lack of any serious analysis of the converged media environment we all live in today is the real puzzlement.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Al Jazeera was huge, yes. But is is your perception that its prominence in these events was going overlooked? Not mine. I think this was finally Al Jazeera's coming out party. The media attention is there and the issue of cable systems carrying AJE is finally getting some traction. 

      • You wrote: “is is your perception that [Al Jazeera’s] prominence in these events was going overlooked? Not mine.”

        Not saying that at all. I agree that Al Jazeera finally got some well deserved attention. I also want to be clear that social media, especially Facebook according to this astounding article in the NYT http://nyti.ms/g8De4w, enabled a never-before-imaginable level of cooperation between the Tunisian and Egyptian activists.

        But one must ask, if Al Jazeera had not been there as a sort of magic mirror, reflecting the Tunisian and Egyptian marches and mobile videos of police brutality back to the entire Arab world, would these marches have been enough? The On The Media piece points specifically to earlier attempts that had not been covered by Al Jazeera, and went nowhere.

        I admit this could sound simplistic and reductionist, so other examples are needed. Here’s one: in the summer of 2009, a small number of Americans yelled at their representatives in Town Halls across the US and posted their rants on YouTube. Fox News, which most likely generated their anger in the first place, not only played these videos but interviewed the screamers, repeatedly, live on the air. This “closed the loop” between the personal, the virtual and the mass media; gave an effect to a cause, so to speak. And in my (so far unproven) opinion, created the Tea Party movement.

        Through this lens, there’s not much difference between Egypt and Rand Paul, except the obvious political differences between a democracy and a dictatorship.

        So it is the siloing of media analysis that I object to and am worried about. Critic A writes about social media in Egypt and critic B writes about Al Jazeera in Egypt, but who is looking at the whole picture, at the meaning and future of today’s converged media environment?

        You are one of very few who thinks about both, albeit separately, so far. The media, all speaking the same language now, make little distinction between these forms. It’s only us who keep acting as though they are not one converged whole.

        • Jay Rosen says:

          The interaction between old media forms like Al Jazeera in the Arabic world, new media forms like Facebook and Twitter, and of course Al Jazeera English for those of us in the United States is one of the questions that would come online and on the research agenda once we get out of the sandbox, yes. Instead of, “many say social media is responsible for the wave of protests, but it’s not that simple,” which treats us like children, a highbrow show like On the Media should start with: “this is a story of how different media forms, older and newer, interact.”

  5. John Powers says:

     I was rather late to pay attention to the events in Algeria.  Once on my radar I followed Andy Carvin on Twitter because Ethan Zuckerman said he was curating links.   For three weeks Twitter has been my primary source for following the events in Egypt.  Following Carvin I quickly followed press who were tweeting.  What I was seeing via Twitter appeared to me the opposite of groupthink.  Journalists were challenging opinions, seeking confirmations, espressing not knowing what to think, and opening up their craft to see.  Following journalists and eyewitnesses on the ground is a far cry from a view from nowhere.  I saw the facts getting lined up on Twitter, and then the published posts were important to read too because all the journalists bring knowledge and experience to the table.  Twitter is something of a revolution in news, which is off topic to the subject of your post, sort of.  But the more that people like me find it normal to follow news on Twitter, the harder it will be for authors to ply articles like "Twitter Can't Topple Dictators."  I bet we'll demand the links and the context even in opinion pieces.

    • I think it’s too soon to say Twitter is a revolution for news. It depends greatly on who is using it, who is consuming it, and with what motives. And it’s not just organizations, but individuals within organizations – or even individuals unaffiliated with any organization – who will determine Twitter’s fate. Like you, I picked which Egypt stories I wanted to read based largely on my Twitter feed. Most of what I chose were pieces recommended by people I trust, and certainly not links tweeted by CNN, Fox, etc.

  6. dSquib says:

    Agree with BOZ.

    Could it not be that you simply do not like people, like Morozov, ridiculing claims coming from those you might be seen as having a broad affiliation with, lest people come to see them as spokespeople for your "side"?

    After all, given the rest of the article, your lame debunking of the lame debunkers of the lame arguments is a bit weird and myopically hypocritical, for you. I could just as easily insist "Net Utopians Think Twitter Causes Revolutions" is not a "serious" claim made by serious people, and therefore should be ignored.

    In addition, your insistence in various tweets that the net utopian skeptics represent some kind of "cause" helps create the us versus them intellectual cul-de-sac.

    Lastly, Gladwell is not exactly academically disciplined even in longer form, so vague attributions are not unique to this "debate".

    • Aneece says:

      I’m going to put your opening sentence on a piece of paper, enclose it in a hot fortune cookie, let the cookie lie in a cupboard until good and stale, about a year, and then crack it open after a long, heavy meal, and then I’m going to see if I can parse it. After that, I look forward to reading the rest of your post, which will no doubt explain how you can “Agree with Boz” when Boz himself had said essentially nothing.

    • Aneece says:

      Also, there’s no such thing as an “us versus them” cul-de-sac. Groups of people can disagree, or otherwise be at odds. One such side can be more right than the other, or eventually win, or both.

      • Boz says:

        I’ll grant that argument, as it illustrates the emptiness of Dr. Rosen’s position, in that Dr. Rosen’s piece does exactly as you describe. Indeed, one might reasonably say Dr. Rosen’s piece is the genre-defining post for what you describe. I found it! I found it! Thanks, Aneece, I rather enjoy not debating you. :)

        • Aneece says:

          BOZ, I know you’ll confuse this with an ad hominem, but it’s not. What I’m going to, in a moment, will be a simple insult. I want you to understand the difference. Now, to be clear, an insult is usually an ugly thing, especially when it’s anonymous. All I can say to that is this: my name is real, I live in Brooklyn, and I’m sure you could find me very easily. I’d be happy to buy you a coffee and a pain chocolate, and tell you to a face that I think you sound like someone TRYING to sound smart. Now this and my earlier insults are nothing to be proud of, and yet they are not ad hominems. Ad hominems are often insults, and yet insults are often NOT ad hominems. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to demonstrate this fact.

          Back to my criticism of you, you keep repeating the same “clever” rhetorical maneuver. To whit, “You claim that X argument is Y, and yet the very argument you use is, in fact, X, and therefore, by your OWN logic, is Y!”. It’s tired, BOZ, and I wish you would stop. And no, me wishing you would stop is NOT an ad hominem.

  7. dSquib says:

    Perhaps the greatest confusion in this "debate" is the different roles social media might be useful in, regarding revolutions. There's grassroots activism, getting the word out to non-activists and breaking the "fear barrier" and getting information to people outside the country. I think social media is no substitute for "traditional" forms of the first, but is clearly useful for the latter two. Not only may it not be a substitute for traditional activism, it may be or become a hindrance, mainly for reasons Gladwell gave, "weak ties" etc.

    • Boz says:

      It’s interesting that many of the organizers and participants in the events in Egypt give a far more personal and direct cause — social media changed the culture. But of course that would be a causal argument, and so should be revised out of the history, account of the participants be damned.

  8. Greg Satell says:

    Jay,
     
    What I find particularly annoying is that so many of the "instant experts" on social media and revolution have never been anywhere close to one.  I have (the Orange Revolution in Ukraine) and can say without a doubt that social media does play a role which is not at all inconsequential.
     
    If you're interested, I wrote about it here: http://www.digitaltonto.com/2011/social-media-and-revolution/
     
    Keep up the great work!
     
    – Greg

  9. Incitatus MP says:

    So, that doesn’t mean that the Internet can topple dictators, right? Or maybe wrong, this is more a meta article than an article so its hard to say.

  10. Marco says:

    Interesting packaging, but alas no new ideas here nor any original thinking..

  11. Stephen Bounds says:

    Jay,
    I don't know if you expected any serious engagement with these sentences near the end of your article — "Factors are not causes. It is a mystery why uprisings occur when they do".
    I've had a go here anyway:  http://bounds.net.au/node/66.

  12. Dave says:

    What exactly is your point?  That people are stupid and write misinformed pieces?  Jeez, welcome to the Internet.  In case you haven't noticed it's mostly porn followed by rants against rants against rants . . . . . 
    I think you're a very perceptive guy but I found this piece weak.  Dig deeper – you're trying to say much more than Egypt's uprising is a mystery.  What are you saying?  Pointing out that people are sheep is really unsatisfying.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      My purpose in wriitng it was as follows: “does Twitter topple dictators?” is a "stuck" conversation and I am trying to unstick it with the tools I have, as a critic. Thanks for asking.

      • Boz says:

        Yes, but your version of unsticking is this:
        – one side of the debate makes some silly claims
        – therefore, both sides of the debate are silly, and the debate should cease at once.
        There are many ways to unstick the debate. Here's one:
        – the free flow of information is a prerequisite to self-determination
        – access to the internet is currently a prerequisite to the free flow of information
        – free flow of information via the internet and social media are a | the prime cause of recent events in Egypt.
        That is a series of causal arguments serious people can and should be able to make without it being dismissed because you're mad at the other side of the debate for doing silly things. And henceforth, please don't say no one is saying this. I'm saying the three points above. What I'm saying is a fair reading of what people who organized the events have been saying. Thought leaders like you and Jeff Jarvis shouldn't be shutting down reasonable points of view on the basis of rhetorical nits. Finally, while I appreciate that you link to other allegedly Very Serious People who think that arguments for technological causation are utopian in nature, that's not the case. It's certainly reasonable to look at what happened in this case and to make strong causal arguments without getting into the Utopian / Dystopian silliness.

        • Jay Rosen says:

          You are misreading this post. Your summary of it is simply wrong. It doesn't try to shut down anything except 1.) "Twitter topples dictators" and other variants on that crude thesis, plus 2.) the silly debunking of these crude and practically author-less claims. Beyond that, what I say is that the role of social media tools is a complex and important (not silly, important) question and so we need a careful analysis, and I have linked to several examples of that kind of careful analysis, none of which is dismissive of the very points you raise. 

          • Boz says:

            No, I don't think I'm misreading. I'll take your word for it that you're not trying to shut down anything other than what you say, but you are in fact doing so on several levels:
            – you suggest no one is making causal claims. This is untrue.
            – you give rough equivalence to the views you really are trying to shut down and straightforward arguments for causation.
            – you assume, but provide no evidence for, the impossibility of reasonably making straightforward arguments for causation
            – you cite sources who do the same.
            Just because you say it's complex and hard doesn't make it so. I've already given you one pattern of argument that seems reasonable and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand simply because you're trying to shut down other people making silly arguments.
            I've already given you one seemingly reasonable pattern of argument that the internet and social media caused the events in Egypt. You must know that many people, including some of the organizers of those events, are making similar claims. You have yet to comment on those claims directly. Would you at least concede the following?
            – Some people are making causal statements about the role of the internet and social media (despite your initial claims otherwise)
            – At least some of these claims have face validity
            – Your arguments for the complexity of the issue aren't a proof for the impossibility of  coming up with a formulation for causation that would in fact be simple and straightforward to demonstrate?
            I recommend you should concede all of these points and move on to the substance.
            Note that a virtual consensus of Very Serious People like you all agree that it it's not possible to voice arguments that the internet and social media brought about the events in Egypt. But that consensus in fact does shut down some points of view, and it arguably has consequences for how the discussion is framed. A strong argument for causation arguably provides the basis for unrestricted internet access as comprising a fundamental right for individuals and groups to participate in a people's self-determination. Some people who are Even More Serious Than You and Mr. Jarvis have been in ongoing debates on that topic for quite some time. You might consider whether your premature concession of defeat — that it's all too complex and hard to know right now, but worthy of investigation — might bear on the outcome of those debates.

  13. Chuck says:

    I'm not sure how you missed Rosen's point.  The articles that attempt to debunk claims about Twitter's role in toppling dictators are engaging in a false argument.  Very few people are claiming that social media alone brought down Mubarak or whatever, but some journalists are involved in creating a false debate that oversimplifies the role that social media tools do have.

    • Picasso Kat says:

      I'm with Chuck  "false debate that oversimplifies the role that social media tools do have" Twitter is not news nor journalism though Twitter can make news and is the finest tool invented for journalists to get their pieces read. Twitter is a tool in the way that TV was a tool in vastly speeding up the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. The moment that Sheriff Bull Connor turned those dogs on the civil rights marchers on national TV, MLK's civil rights movement was amped up ten fold.

  14. Robert B Russell says:

     
    You might want to refer back  to this piece about the 1979 Iranian revolution.
     
    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,948435-1,00.html
     
    There is a parallel with Egypt. Khomeini's supporters spread his message all over Iran on smuggled cassette tapes. In comparing the Iranian revolution to others, the author describes this as an "anomalous or unprecedented detail". 
     
    Perhaps this use of decentralised, distributive technology was itself a precedent?
     
    There may be another precedent, of course, lurking in the Burke quote that kicks off the piece. But let's hope not.

  15. Chris Boese says:

    You know they still say this sort of thing about Tiananmen Square and fax machines, right?

    Here's where I'd point my fickle finger of blame: The basic Journalism 101 maxim of defining news as something simple and boiled down to catch phrases, "dumbed down" for sixth grade reading levels, AND (this is an important "and") the imperative that journalistic writing in some way "sell" a story (an often unspoken but no less crucial print imperative, long before the days of SEO).

    Emily Dickinson wrote, "Publication is the Auction of the Mind of Man." For all their high-minded ideals, journalists have been auctioning ideas and subtlely marketing the lede or the main idea of a story so it will "catch" for as long as there has been mass media.

    Put that in combination with the absolute imperative to dumb-down, and you get an assumption that stories in the journalistic Commons will hype catchy conflations of BS till the cows come home (look at the coverage of most science stories, or any story with a "study" that has an invisible standard deviation or ambiguously-phrased or leading survey questions). This is absolutely true of 80% of all broadcast stories, when you look across all markets.

    Journalism 101: find the basic "agon," put the interviewees into one of the two camps, pro- or ant- agon, and you've fulfilled the formula (you've done much to deconstruct the stupidity of this approach, but a story with an "agon" is one of the core news criteria or "peg" in basic newswriting courses).

    Conflating finer nuances is what happens in journalism, by definition, because of the requirement to simplify (and because the practictioners are kept so perpetually young and inexperienced, by low pay, frequent layoffs of the most experienced and expensive people in the newsroom, and by overt management directive). 

    Even the panel you were on last Thursday revealed that, in the mix of the people speaking (two years experience seems to be the norm… some of us were trying to cover social media in newsrooms quite hostile to it 9 years ago).

    I nearly got sent to HR in one newsroom (not mentioning any names) for using the word "conflate" in a lead, because no one in the newsroom knew what the word meant (let alone the fact that they were doing it in almost every story they wrote).

    And this was a story were Sen. Harry Reid used the word himself on the floor of the Senate. When I pointed out that the NPR story had led with the exact same item I did (written at the same time, I didn't discover our similarity until later), THAT was used as an indicator of my failing to write a "proper" lede, because if NPR prioritized lead elements that way, that automatically meant it was all wrong for our audience.

    We (the royal we) create a field that demands conflation, simplification, and bold strokes, with a resulting loss of nuance and a descent into easily marketable catch phrases.

    Should we dispair that nuance and finer points of accuracy are lost in such a universe?

    • Chris Boese says:

      Like the new blog format (miss the old signature blue), but sure do wish the formatting were more easily managed for comments, and would love to go back and be able to fix my spelling errors! Blah.

  16. Terry Heaton says:

    The problem I have with this meme is its naive understanding of the horizontal connectivity that is the Web. That's what makes these tools so uniquely qualified to aid and assist in revolution on any level. Sideways connectivity gives everyday people access to everybody else, and that's just not possible with telephones or text messaging, both generally one-to-one methods. The Web is a 3-way connector, and that is something new under the sun. Up, down, sideways. So while, of course, the revolution is the people, remember what Sir Tim Berners-Lee said long ago: "The Web is more a social creation than a technological one." Social IS people. History, I believe, will judge Twitter and Facebook as absolutely essential in the events of recent weeks, and I think we've only just begun.

  17. MM says:

     
    You are arguing the ideas of the last century. Like education and learning change a person so does group Internet communication. The people who use facebook and twitter think different than people who do not use it. People are not citing Malcolm Gladwell’s whiney piece because his star has been falling as an explainer of the modern world and the Internet for a few years now, and people have moved past his ideas.
     
    The Internet does change everything, including how people think. The Internet and search and facebook and twitter disintermediate institutions and relationships everywhere they touch. The Internet spreads not just ideas faster than the old media, but also rapidly propagates self-organization among its users. Intermediaries and leaders are much less important in groups that communicate with Internet means. Newspapers, pamphleteers, TV stations, publishers, political leaders, record companies, the post office, fading away and changing into parts of the new thinking or vanishing like button shoes and home milk delivery.
     
    The idea that “the other side” will just use the Internet to counter the revolution is weak also. People can see through propaganda very quickly, and unlike the old broadcast media, the user has control over what is received and shared to the group, as part of the groups they belong to. The intermediary of the TV station or newspaper is gone.
     
    Arguing that twitter made the revolution or the revoultion made twitter is a chicken-or-egg argument. They are the same thing in this case because the young people who revolted were operating in a different environment and mindset that the old state.
     
    Ask your self, if the old USSR had faced the Internet in 1923 would it have taken until 1989 for the wall to come down? (Yes, the Berlin wall may never have been built, because physical walls do not matter to the Internet.)
     
    MM
    @shooteyeout

  18. Jeff Brazil says:

    One interesting data point is to listen to the tech-savvy and college-educated leaders who have led the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Doing so gives you a sense that the Internet and digital tools were not immaterial. For starters, they helped people:

    1) Know they were not alone

    2) Draft action plans

    3) Mobilize

    4) Have their cause and plight known by the outside world

    5) Receive encouragement from empathetic people around the world

    That these mattered greatly to them makes complete sense. 

    In nation versus nation warfare and citizen uprisings, communication and media are always first-wave targets, because it allows you to isolate, confuse, de-fuse, disempower, cloak, control outbound messaging, etc. Isolation alone is an important facet of gaining advantage, because we are such social creatures. Humanitarian Paul Loeb has said that "nothing cripples the will like isolation." Conversely, the collective will of a people can rise and be exponentially empowered by the companionship and encouragement of others. The Internet and social media can feed this phenomenon, and if you listen closely to the architects of the recent string of uprisings, they credit the Web where it is due but they also don't over-credit it.

    Here is one interesting Q&A w/ a young Arab blogger, programmer, activist. http://bit.ly/eIPgVU

  19. Jake Breeden says:

    Professor Rosen,
    How does the Internet affect the balance of forces in a contest between the state and people fed up with the state?
    Sincerely,
    Jake Breeden

    • Stephen Bounds says:

      Jake,
      FWIW, my crude summary would be something like this:
      – the Internet makes it faster and easier for people to find out about injustices perpetrated by the government
      – if people feel the injustices affect them directly or indirectly, they get angry
      – talking to other people who are angry off reinforces their resolve and anger
      – if enough people get angry enough, they revolt
      I feel it's the difficulty of controlling information flows that feed anger and discontent prior to the revolt which matters far more than the coordination of the revolt itself.

    • Boz says:

      Jake, it's a great question, but Dr. Rosen is a Professor, well-schooled in the traditions of the academe. This events in Egypt are a mystery so complex and hard-to-unravel that no Serious Person would dare make claims that it can be explained via straightforward causal models. Fortunately, the burden of explanation is eased somewhat by the fact that anyone who makes such claims now can be preemptively dismissed as Not Serious; they haven't accounted for the mysteries involved. Importantly, it is impossible for any argument for causation to overcome this inherent complexity. This is both a) the reason the many people who have made such claims are silly, and b) why no one has made such claims.
      Got it?

  20. The best testimony about social media’s role in these events has to be the efforts of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments to thwart or completely cut off the Internet. A tool is a tool, but if it's being used against you…  Jeremy Littau also had a great article on this pointing out the simplicty of the argument at play.

    It's gotten to be the gov 2.0 social media expert meme, and an obnoxious one. I really appreciate you writing this post, Jay. Looking forward to your next one.

    • Ernesto says:

      Did I miss a link to Morozov's book and tweets on this post? 

      Wasn't he the inventor of this genre?

      And isn't it interesting that most of the people and platforms behind the "Twitter Can't Topple Dictators" are writing in and from "the developed West"?
       

      • Jay Rosen says:

        Morozov is a special case. If I were to write about his contribution to this meme, it would have to be a review of his book, as well. Fortunately, Cory Doctorow said what I would have said in his review of the book, and I linked to that. 

  21. […] colleague Jay Rosen has been particularly alert to the dishonesties inherent in such attempts to dismiss the power of […]

  22. I blogged a photo (Egyptian store window, pro Twitter and FB) and comment (Richard Engel, con) on Howard Rheingold’s

    http://www.smartmobs.com/2011/02/06/egypt-jan-25-and-the-internet

    SmartMobs blog and commented, among other things… That we’d do well to bear the Aristotelian distinction between material, formal, efficient and final causes in mind when talking about what “caused” or “becaused” those events – and elsewhere… To vary a well-known slogan: social media don't topple people: people do –but people with social media access may be able to pull things off that they couldn't have managed without it.

  23. Dan Cohen says:

    Maybe it's worth backing up a bit more: Isn't arguing about the causes and enablers of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, or highlighting or dismissing any factor, about as silly as arguing about the nature of the French Revolution on July 15, 1789? If we're going to be grown-ups, as you wisely suggest here, Jay, let's step back further and admit that as with every major, complex historical event we will likely discover a range of contributing elements and enabling "technologies" (as famine, national debt, notions of the social contract, and pamplets were in revolutionary France)—and yes, some mystery too.

  24. Jay Rosen says:

    The phenomenon in action. Has almost all six identifying signs of the genre. 

  25. vanderleun says:

    Long rant but the fact remains, "Twitter brings down governments is not a serious idea … It just feels good… for a moment."

  26. Rob says:

    Totally agree with most of what you're saying.
    Some examples :
    Morozov (hee hee) : "Moldova's Twitter Revolution" (it is an older article, though, so not relevant to Egypt, Tunisia) :
    http://bit.ly/4F1mhx
    "The naysayers here remind of people who insist on claiming that reality doesn't exist even after knocking their head on the wall — I simply don't buy into the thesis that it was a CIA-inspired Twitter campaign… It's kind of surprising to see so many people misunderstand the power of networks in such profound ways."
    "Egypt's Facebook Revolution" :
    http://huff.to/gcieGV
    Many examples could be found, just type the happy, "we're all brothers in the wired world" slogan boilerplate into the Google search engine.
    I wrote a comment, but it didn't go through for some reason, so I'll recap my thoughts on this :
    1: There is a tendency towards solipsism for those watching from afar through Twitter, etc., in that they can have the impression that events are unfolding simply because they are looking on.  It's a distortion of perception. 
    2: There is a sense of technological colonialism in the idea that somehow the (fill in the blank) are able to "throw off their chains thanks the the wonderful tools we've bestowed upon them".
    3: It's wrong to throw Morozov into the categorie of people like Gladwell because his analyis is much more nuanced.
    4: I take issue with the fact that one must cite sources for every argument – there is a clear tendency for these memes to gather a life of their own once they're in the "ether", and simply because one does not provide an immediate citation, it doesn't invalidate the argument ; the idea clearly comes from somewhere, and simply because the original citation can't be found, doesn't mean it never existed.
    5: We have to separate how people TALK about new media from how it actually functions.  The most important thing for me is that the internet has changed the model from a one-way emitter –> recepter thing to an emitter/recepter node which can receive AND create information, or journalism.  And this over the whole planet in real time.  I think it's the first time in history.

    • Boz says:

      More straw men on your part. It's solipsism and technological colonialism to take at face value the assessments of people who organized the protests in Egypt, and people who were there? Interesting. Is it technological colonialism to point out that the government's internet shutdown didn't work largely because of the work of net activists in dozens of countries, including many not in the West?  It's not wrong to throw Morozov into the mix given the devastating points raised in the Doctorow review linked above. Just check the Twitter streams and explain how it's nuanced, please.

      • Rob says:

        Boz, I feel like I know you already.  I'm not sure you got everything I was saying, but it's hard to be concise and simultaneously address the issues.  For what it's worth, I have read and agree with Doctorow's (which is excellent), Shrikey's, Dave Parry's, and especially Zeynep Tufekci's writings on the subject.
         
         
        Is it technological colonialism to point out that the government's internet shutdown didn't work largely because of the work of net activists in dozens of countries, including many not in the West?
        – The point is not whether it is or not, but rather what the discourse is around the subject in influential circles, the kinds of things large numbers of people read and listen to.  The language we use to address these issues needs to change.  If you were following Sharif Abdel Kouddous' interviews from Cairo, then you know that it was at the moment Mubarak implemented his version of the "kill switch" that many people took to the streets, as they had no other way to inform themselves other than official state propaganda and Al Jazeera, and also as an angry reaction to his blunt maneuvre.  So, in this case, one can say that turning off the net had the effect of mobilizing people.  The fact that the community and the dialogue already existed before the cut was crucial to this, as is stated in Clay Shirkey's article on this subject (Foreign Affairs, last week).
         
        You also have to realize that the various commentators on the subject are not advancing ideas which are mutually exclusive, but rather complement each other in certain ways.  They are not all talking about the same things.  People like Doctorow (who's article is brilliant) are addressing more the technological capabilities of the net, and the levelling of the playing field it offers in terms of data encryption and rapid spread of information, and also the fact that, as long as the net is not censored by strongarmed policies (which a more de-centralized infrastructure would partly avoid), there is always the possibility to counter official propaganda. 
        Morozov concentrates more on the official "cyber-utopian" pronouncements of people like Hilary Clinton, and advises us that social media can be used by governments in much the same way as citizens, or hackers, and that we should be wary of simplistic slogans and "democracy promotion" used car salesmen telling us that technology is a sufficient condition for changing society and engendering freedom… 
         
        Tufekci reminds us that there are differences between causal agents, necessary conditions, and tools which aid in revolutions and social movements.  "Cause" is a loaded word, and there are many ways in which tools nd media can influence events – but they are not necessarily the reasons for upheavals.  They may be necessary for them to occur (which is what some Egyptians and Tunisians have been saying).  There's a big difference.
        You should maybe reread some of the articles.
        Cheers!

        • Boz says:

          Rob, well said. I wouldn't dispute that cause is a loaded word. Nor do I have a problem with the idea that tools and media may be necessary for upheavals to occur. But I have a problem with rhetorical tactics that dismiss causal forms of argument out of hand, rather than dealing with the substance of the assertions. Not that you do this. It should be obvious that many forms of causal argument are being made by people who participated in the events in Egypt – some by people who were there, others who participated directly by taking steps to undermine the official shutdown of the internet. Thanks for the reply.

  27. Here's an example of the genre I just came across, but I really only skimmed it because it was driving me nuts: http://www.tnr.com/article/against-the-current/83402/egypt-tunisia-democracy-twitter-economy  "Predictably, if also dishearteningly, there has been an avalanche of the usual cyber-utopian techno-babble about the emancipatory potential of the Bluetooth devices and Twitter feeds for which authoritarian tyrannies are said to be no match." AGGGH. The headline makes it sound like there is going to be a larger point about economic justice here, but it appears to be yet another screed. 
     
     
     

  28. Olav Bergo says:

    All successful popular rebellions in history, made smart and innovative use of state of the art communication and media technology. in 1789, the year of the French revolution, the number of newspapers sold in France increased with a factor of 10! Karl Marx was a newspaperman and a journalist, before he turned political activist and philosopher. The social democrats of Scandinavia created newspapers, before they created political parties and trade unions. When the Chines communists prevailed in 1948, they had rags and poor guns. But their radio equipment was the best money could buy, at the time. When Milosevic's regime was toppled, opposition newspapers in Belgrade and Serbia were instrumentive. Media really is WRD, Weapons of Regime Destruction!
     

    • Boz says:

      Olav, I’m sorry, but you did not say that. If you did actually say that, then the consensus of Very Serious People link-sharing with this blog’s author won’t be able to repeat their claim that no one said what you just said.

  29. This isn’t the first time Twitter and other social media have seen pushback. Indeed, this isn’t the first time that Coldeway has questioned the effects of Twitter. Indeed, in a 2009 post, Coldeway argued that “what can be said in 140 characters is either trivial or abridged; in the first case it would be better not to say it at all, and in the second case it would be better to give it the space it deserves.”

    What this misses, however, is the stream of tweets itself. No single tweet is read in a vacuum–at least it shouldn’t be. When anyone types in #Jan25 into a Twitter search, he doesn’t see just one tweet. Instead, he sees an entire stream of comments and articles (in relatively chronological order) that lead the user to content elsewhere on the Internet, or shares a personal note on the subject.

    Take for example this tweet which was sent from a landline after the Internet had shut down, and Goggle, along with SayNow and Twitter, created a call-in tweet program; using the program, a person a thousand miles away or another member of the revolution could hear a friend or stranger saying, “So many people have been killed already and injured. We have achieved so much so far. We cannot go back. We will win.”

    Like any technology, acceptance is slow, and adaptation is even slower. Nonetheless, in the case of Facebook or Twitter, the acceptance is surprisingly fast. It’s the adaptation that is lagging. Yet, it appears that many–even journalists–are adapting to and taking advantage of these technologies.

    It’s impossible to predict how these tools will be used in the future to inform, organize, and educate. For that reason, we should not dismiss the effects of these technologies as somehow tangential and unimportant. To disregard their potential effects is to disregard the reality of the situation. And no, recognizing the effect of the technologies does not diminish the success of the revolution.

    Read More: http://bit.ly/fZfs2t

  30. […] with no overt leadership or common ideology if they get hacked off enough with the status quo. The arguments as to how much impact the web and Twitter had on events will run and run. For me it is not so much […]

  31. Kate Brodock says:

    Ah, thank you for this post! Most notably the emphasis on “a bunch of cyber-utopians” vs “real gown-ups.” I’m part of an organization called the Meta-Activism Project (MAP). While most of are what you might call cyber-utopians (in that, we all think digital technology can have a positive overall effect on societies/citizens/politics/democracy/etc, amidst the negative uses that might come about), we set up MAP specifically for the purpose of getting to the deeper questions, the data.

    Our motivating question is: “How are we creating knowledge about digital activism and how can we do so more effectively?”

    It’s SO crucial to first recognize that this is a difficult question. It’s something that will take years to develop into a field because, well, it is just like any other major shift in societal dynamics in that it’s complex!

    And then, it’s crucial to understand that, at this point, with limited data, the above arguments and name calling is pretty pointless.

    Those of us who might think positively about the roll of technology in these events are well-aware it isn’t the tool. What we do recognize is that there might be something about the tools that are changing the way people are able to mobilize and voice themselves, and possibly bringing about more success cases…but we’re all still watching!

    At MAP, we’re in the process of coding 1000+ cases of global digital activism so we can get at the root of some of this argument – what is “success”? what do these tools add to the concept of revolution? how has the concept of revolution possibly changed in the wake of new tools of communication? etc etc.

    Don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. And, as far as I’m concerned, for people to continue to straight up DENY that digital tools had absolutely no effect on Moldova/Iran/Egypt etc would be kind of silly also, no?

    Kate

  32. Thanks for the careful thought in the original analysis, and the even more careful curation. Following up of debates like this is vital.

    I would add one post and one document to your discussion. They have the benefit of calling attention to the way social media was part of the ecology of information in Egypt in the years prior to recent events, helping to expand political discourse in such a way as to make change conceivable.

    Charles Hirschkind’s post “The Road to Tahir” details this new media landscape at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2011/02/09/the-road-to-tahrir/ (I came to it via @academicdave, so you may well know about it).

    There is also the March 2009 US embassy cable released by Wikileaks that details the impact of 160,000 bloggers in the country (!) with the title BLOGGERS MOVING FROM ACTIVISM TO BROADENING DISCOURSE AND SELF-EXPRESSION (see http://wikileaks.ch/cable/2009/03/09CAIRO544.html).

    These are factors not causes, but its revealing to have this historical perspective on social media as a factor.

  33. Andrew S says:

    The source of this sort of article is humanity’s age long habit of falling for trolls. It is far more tempting and simple to pen a response to some screed of yellow journalism than it is to write critical thoughts and analysis. On the internet this has been magnified as headlines largely determine readership*.

    [*] citation needed

  34. Mary says:

    Excellent analysis of what I’d call the school of “cyber-utopianism debunkers.” Work like this post is sadly a necessary corrective to the debunkers themselves. I’m using a similar line of critique in my series of posts on “The Net Delusion”.

    http://www.meta-activism.org/2011/02/net-delusion-review-iran-revisited/

    http://www.meta-activism.org/2011/02/net-delusion-review-back-to-the-cold-war/

    • Jay Rosen says:

      As I’ve told the author, the debunking impulse is ruining a potentially great critic’s style and lowering the quality of his criticism. I am not the only one telling him that. He does not listen to this message. Or we could say he simply disagrees with me. There are many rewards for the “we debunk cyberutopians” style, so I am not optimistic.

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