About ten days before the events of January 25, the media was abuzz with writers and influential thinkers wondering if the Tunisian revolution was a Twitter revolution or not. The camps, as usual, were divided, with incessant criticism from cyber-skeptics and their tirades against cyber-utopians. Sifting through the widespread commentary about digital activism in the wake of the extraordinary events of the revolution at Egypt, the polarity of opinions is jarring. While most commentary from supporters of digital activism has been balanced and acknowledges the presence of inevitable drawbacks, cyber-skeptics seem to wax eloquent about the utopianism of the opposing school of thought. A review of the commentary points to the contrary and provides a sneak peek into what the future course of conversation in these circles could be.
The School of Skepticism
On a scale of cyber-skepticism to cyber-utopianism, Malcolm Gladwell continues to move at a rate that will soon push him off the cyber-skeptic end. It has been proven beyond doubt that digital activism is not without risks. If anything, this has become a controversial subject with the question of the unavailability of anonymity impeding activists online. How the Egypt revolution happened would not be of any interest to Gladwell, who says he’d rather choose to focus on the why (in The New Yorker). It would, perhaps, be interesting to observe the ‘why’ as well. Did social media play a role, however small, in creating these digital activists, later helping them to organize better? Were there conversations in the cyberspace that indicated an uprising was in the offing?
Evgeny Morozov is the emerging leader of the tech naysayer school and his latest book ‘The Net Delusion’ attempts to debunk any remaining myths of social media revolutions (not that there were any trustworthy scholars claiming its existence in the first place!) Here is a review of ‘The Net Delusion’ and a detailed take of Mary Joyce of the Meta-Activism Project on Morozov’s ideas.
Cyber-Supporters and the Public Sphere
Extreme skepticism apart, there are some rational voices that have commented about the real role that technology and digital activism have played in furthering events at Egypt. The Berkman Center’s Jillian York acknowledges that Twitter is a complement to major news networks and that the public’s awareness of who to follow on Twitter has also been significant in this revolution. A quote from her blog (“Egyptians know their country better than CNN, MSNBC, or even Al Jazeera possibly could.” ) probably sums up the essence of this revolution the best – it has been a revolution of and by the people of Egypt, as revolutions have been, across centuries. What makes this more relevant to the world of digital activism is the fact that every Egyptian who wanted to talk, could now possibly be heard from halfway across the world.
Clay Shirky, who has remained hopeful about the role of social media and digital activism making a positive impact, has been engaging in constant word battles with Gladwell. In one of his responses to Gladwell’s rather ironically-titled ‘An Absence of Evidence’, Shirky acknowledges that the tools of social media alter the dynamics of the public sphere. The public sphere has been an issue oft-discussed in the past few weeks, from several angles. One of them has been in the context of social media’s role in the public sphere. Increasing concerns about Facebook continue to be voiced. Jillian York talked about the role (or lack thereof) of Facebook in the Arab public sphere about a year ago and these concerns have resurfaced with stronger voices in the context of Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan. (What Can Facebook Do To Better Support Activists – Movements.org)
Earlier this week, an article in The New York Times discussed how the world of digital activism would deal with the possibility of autocratic governments holding the kill switch for the internet. More data is needed to understand how the internet was effectively shut down in Egypt and could be useful in furthering understanding for activists in the coming years.
Misnomers and Redundant Non-Debates
In the midst of debates about whether or not technology matters to revolutions, Jay Rosen of NYU recently published an interesting post about the redundancy of opinions and discussions that have begun to cloud constructive conversation in this realm (Following it up with a collection of reactions and comments to the Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators argument). Calling the internet and its social media tools a “sexy newsy sidebar to the main event,” he says that factors are not causes. His frustration at the claims of non-existence of extreme cyber-utopianism could be a response to the skeptics’ constant thrashing of arguments that no one seems to be making anymore. Some points are beyond refutation.
The Question of Why
In spite of his now-frustrating routine of arguments (“Just because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean they matter”), Gladwell does make a valid contribution to the cyber-utopian camp by suggesting a focus on why the revolution occurred. A lot of supposed cyber-utopians (who, in reality, are only just supporters of the idea that digital activism can have a positive effect) have discussed the ‘Why’. Why was there a revolution in Egypt? Why now? There’s also the increasingly discussed question of “What next?”
Devin Coldewey also takes a moderate view of the revolution and the role of technology. Since internet is the contemporary means of communication, it was used to organize. Five years ago, he says, it would have been mobile phones. His views form a more reasonable version of Gladwell’s “it’s not the how but the why that matters” argument. While leaning away from the utopian camp, Coldewey also acknowledges the relevance of internet, although he says “the internet is neither necessary nor sufficient for a revolution. An outraged and unified population is both.”
From Lunch Counters to Leadership Crises
Lunch counters out there do need integrating, as Gladwell pointed out last year, except, we can probably inform as many people of it online as we could have offline. One is not a substitute for the other, but a complement that could prove more effective than either as a standalone tactic. Organizing has become more effective and the power of organizing as a tool to exercise democracy has been proven by the success of the people of Egypt. “In the absence of social media, would these uprisings have been impossible?” Gladwell asks. No, but the presence of social media has made the road to effective means and successful ends of such uprisings easier and more global.
A more critical concern at this juncture would be about Egypt’s future. A regime has been overthrown. Digital activism has proven to be a potent counterpart to traditional, offline organizing. But, with the changing political atmosphere in Egypt come changes in concerns in the media as well. The big question is – who will lead Egypt? While citizen activists, their online and offline supporters and voices from across oceans could create, sustain and see a revolution through to its successful end, the revolution, in large part, has been leaderless. Anne-Marie Slaughter, until recently Director of Policy Planning for the State Department, writes about the changing conception of leadership in the internet generation, stating that leaders are central nodes in multiple networks and rightly points out that mass movements cannot govern.
It is probably time to stop overstating the evils of technology and begin constructive conversation about the road ahead for a leaderless revolution. Even the cyber-skeptic/cyber-utopian trope is unhelpful to the field as it allows thinkers to pigeon-hole one another and discredit each other’s arguments with buzzwords. Cyber-skepticism, moderate support or illusions of cyber-utopians will not decide the future of Egypt. Just like its revolution, it will be decided and carried forward by its people.