It’s Not Twitter or Facebook, It’s the Power of the Network

Just as it was during the recent uprisings in Tunisia, the role of social media in the recent upheaval in Egypt has been the subject of much debate since the unrest began on Thursday. Daily Show host Jon Stewart on Friday poked fun at the idea that Twitter might have played a key part in the demonstrations, and there are many observers who share his skepticism. The real trigger for the uprisings, they argue, is simply the frustration of the oppressed Egyptian people — which is undoubtedly true. But it also seems clear that social media has played a key role in getting the word out, and in helping organizers plan their protests. In the end, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.

Foreign Policy magazine columnist Evgeny Morozov has argued that Twitter and Facebook should not be credited with playing any kind of critical role in Tunisia, and suggested that doing so is a sign of the “cyber-utopianism” that many social-media advocates suffer from: that is, the belief that the Internet is unambiguously good, or that the use of Twitter or Facebook can somehow magically free a repressed society from its shackles. Morozov, who has written an entire book about this idea called Net Delusion, made the point in his blog post after the Tunisian uprising that while social media might have been used in some way during the events, tools like Twitter and Facebook did not play a crucial role — that is, the revolution would have happened with or without them.

Zeynep Tufekci, a professor of sociology who has also looked at this issue, described in a post following the revolution in Tunisia how professional observers distinguish between what she called “material,” “efficient” and “final” causes — in other words, things that are required in order to produce a certain outcome, and things that are nice to have but are not a requirement. Tufekci argues that social media was a crucial factor in Tunisia, while Jillian York of Global Voices Online believes that social media tools are useful, but not necessary. Ethan Zuckerman, one of the founders of Global Voices Online, has also written about how the uprisings in both Tunisia and in Egypt have more to do with decades of poverty and repressive dictatorships than they do with social media.

But is anyone really arguing that Twitter and Facebook caused the revolutions in Tunisia or Egypt, or even the earlier public uprisings in Moldova or Iran for that matter? Maybe cyber-utopians somewhere are doing this, but I haven’t seen or heard of any. The argument I have tried to make is simply that they and other social media tools can be incredibly powerful, both for spreading the word — which can give moral or emotional support to others in a country, as well as generating external support — as well as for organizational purposes, thanks to the power of the network. As Jared Cohen of Google Ideas put it, social media may not be a cause, but it can be a powerful “accelerant.”

Did Twitter or Facebook cause the Tunisian revolt? No. But they did spread the news, and many Tunisian revolutionaries gave them a lot of credit for helping with the process. Did Twitter cause the revolts in Egypt? No. But they did help activists such as WikiLeaks supporter Jacob Appelbaum (known on Twitter as @ioerror) and others as they organized the dialup and satellite phone connections that created an ad-hoc Internet after Egypt turned the real one off — which, of course, it did in large part to try and prevent demonstrators from using Internet-based tools to foment unrest. As Cory Doctorow noted in his review of Evgeny Morozov’s book, even if Twitter and Facebook are just used to replace the process of stapling pieces of paper to telephone poles and sending out hundreds of emails, they are still a huge benefit to social activism of all kinds.

But open-network advocate Dave Winer made the key point: it’s the Internet that is the really powerful tool here, not any of the specific services such as Twitter and Facebook that run on top of it, which Winer compares to brands like NBC. They have power because lots of people use them, and — in the case of Twitter — because they have open protocols so that apps can still access the network even when the company’s website is taken down by repressive governments (athough they didn’t mention Egypt or Tunisia by name, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and general counsel Alexander Macgillivray wrote a post about the company’s desire to “keep the information flowing).

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Ahmad Kavousian