September 21, 2011

There were a number of discussions at Ethicomp 2011 around the value of social media, particularly it’s role in the ‘Arab Spring’, and at the same time the BBC has been broadcasting two programmes idealistically entitled ‘How Facebook Changed the World‘. I’d already blogged supporting the cybersceptic approach of Morozov and others, but on the train journeys to and from the conference in Sheffield I took the opportunity to read two recent articles from the MIT Technology Review.

The first short piece from 8 September 2011 entitled “Beyond Streetbook” by Jillian C. York (when considering the dichotomy) states quite gloomily that “The revolution will be tweeted, and Facebooked, but it will also be fought bloodily, on the streets”. The main conclusion being that the power of the incumbents are sometimes more powerful than any opposition, even when using the dissident digerati to assist.

The second, and longer, piece ‘ Streetbook‘ by John Pollock looks in some detail at recent events, whilst harking back to Malcolm Gladwell’s article in New Yorker of October 4, 2010 – ‘Small Change – why the revolution will not be tweeted‘. One of the interviewees in the article, a technically-savvy soccer-supporter is quoted as stating “Don’t talk, don’t fucking analyze, get to the street, go fight”, which is hardly the words of someone mediating a revolution through a keyboard. In Tunisia, where more than 300 are reported dead, texts, emails and the telephone were all use along with social media – the revolution was marketed digitally, whilst delivered bloodily.

As Gladwell states “Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model”. This means they forget about history and how revolutions occurred in the past, even the recent past. Innovators forget how uprisings against injustice were planned without the use of the telegraph, radio, television or the Internet – they happened because a small group of people forced changed and used whatever tools they could to do it.

If social media have assisted change in the Middle East, all well and good, but they themselves didn’t change anything, the people who stood against authority did. However, as Pollock concludes “Real change remains elusive; those replacing Ben Ali and Mubarak are mostly members of the same stale regimes.” Will social media generate “real change”? Probably not…