Social Media and Revolution

Focus Questions:

  • Who do you think is “right” about social media’s role: Shirky? Gladwell? Both? And why?
  • How much do you think technology matters when it comes to politics in general and revolutionary change in particular? Do you think the revolution in Tunisia would have happened without social media? How about Egypt?
  • Are there potential “dark sides” or problems with the role social media is playing? What are they?

Social Media. The term itself instantly inspires the mind to think of networking sites where friends and family come together to share thoughts, events, photos, conversations, and videos with one another. Facebook. Twitter. Tumblr. Instagram. One could list social sites for hours upon hours without running out of titles. The internet is no longer simply a means of obtaining information on a myriad of subjects; the newer and perhaps more prominent purpose the net holds for a majority of society is that of being able to connect to one another via websites such as those listed above.

Now we must ask ourselves: as the connectivity between people increases and transforms, does the world around us begin to transform as well? Is social media contained solely to the internet, or does it manage to spill out into the world around us? And in what ways does it help or harm our global society? It’s a straightforward answer, really: As media awareness and the connection we have between others increases, so too does the influence it carries on the world. With 1.06 billion reported active Facebook users, 200 million active Twitter users, and 150 million Tumblr users[6], it’s difficult to believe that social media wouldn’t have anything but a profound impact upon the world.

Social Media and Revolution

January, 2011. No more than two years ago, Egypt found itself at a boiling point when poverty, unemployment, and government corruption were seemingly at an all-time high. President Hosni Mubarak, having held the throne for three decades, was seen as unfit for ruling the country by a majority of Egypt’s citizens. By January 25, the nation came to revolt in what they declared a “Day of Rage.” Protesting began in Cairo, where thousands of men and women came together to protest their government, crying “Down with Mubarak” throughout the streets. Other cities followed suit within hours of the revolution’s beginning with similar cries echoing through Alexandria, Mansura, Tanta, Aswan, and Assiut.[1]

What made this revolution so special was the mobilization of forces through the networking site Twitter. Almost as quickly as the protests and riots began, tweets about the were multiplying at an incredibly rapid pace. As demonstrated in the video below – which provides a graphic visual (created with the Gephi Graph Streaming plugin) on how quickly the retweeting of tweets containing the hashtag #jan25.[7] All data presented in the below demonstration was collected over the course of merely one hour.

Can we possibly say that technology didn’t play a massive roll in helping to publicize this event? I know that, personally, I wouldn’t have heard about this unless my friends had told me that there was some “crazy stuff going down on Twitter regarding Egypt.” Of course, I’m not as heavily-involved with Twitter as many of my friends; but it is funny that this is the first source where I heard anything at all about the crisis. Perhaps technology didn’t do much more than help to mobilize support and garner mass media interest, but its role was vital nonetheless.

Shirky, Gladwell, Both, or Neither?

So, who is right about social media? I believe Gladwell’s opinion and attitude regarding the matter can easily be summed up by one quote from his article Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted: “Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?”[3] While I agree with the sentiment behind this statement – that it’s becoming ludicrious to how we’re coming to rely on faceless strangers to revolutionize and change our world through clicks of their mice – I’m not certain that such an incredulious question is worth the time to analyze. No, perhaps not every problem will be best solved through electronic means, but there are events which are best spread and solved by spreading through social networking and getting the masses involved in causes.

Shirky, unlike his contemporary, argues that social media has a profound impact on the political realm of any given country. He cites the 2001 impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada and how quickly a million protesters gathered in the streets of Manila to ensure his impeachment – all organized via a text which read “Go 2 EDSA. Wear Blk.”[5] In this case, seven million texts bearing this message were circulated within the country, causing many politicians to realize that perhaps the masses would easily be able to create changes through something as simple as a five-word text message.

Overall, I’d have to say that my vote goes to Shirky. Based on what we’ve seen – from the protests in Egypt to the 99% campaign here in America – social media has changed the way the game of politics is being played. As social networking evolves and grows, I truly do believe we’ll find the impact of social media only continuing to grow and change in coordination with its development. The dark side? Well, so far there isn’t much to worry about. But who knows if the tables could be turned to make a country collapse in on itself. I suppose only time will tell. Until then, happy tweeting.

Works Cited

[1] Al Jazeera and Agencies, comp. “Timeline: Egypt’s Revolution – Middle East – Al Jazeera English.” AlJazeera. Al Jazeera English, 14 Feb. 2011. Web. 01 Mar. 2013.

[2] Finamore, Carl. “Why Egypt’s Revolution Is So Different.” CounterPunch (n.d.): n. pag.» Counterpunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names. 23 Feb. 2013. Web. 01 Mar. 2013.

[3] Gladwell, Malcom. “Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 10 Oct. 2010. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.

[4] Gladwell, Malcom, and Clay Shirky. “From Innovation to Revolution.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, Mar.-Apr. 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.

[5] Shirky, Clay. “The Political Power of Social Media.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, Jan.-Feb. 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.

[6] Smith, Craig. “How Many People Use the Top Social Media, Apps & Services?” Web log post. Digital Marketing Ramblings. N.p., 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.

[7] “The Egyptian Revolution on Twitter.” Web log post. Gephi. N.p., 15 Feb. 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2013.