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.