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

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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

80 Responses to “It’s Not Twitter or Facebook, It’s the Power of the Network”

  1. Sometimes a go I came accross a very intersting dissertation that talked abot the impact of the internet on saudi female and how it transfprm them and the society in general

    the title: The Impat of the Internet on Saudi EFL female by phd Salem Al-Salem
    google it its worth reading for it explains how individuals tranformed when exposed to new knowledge ideas

  2. Totally agree with you. Before Facebook, Twitter and Blogs – social networking still existed in the form of IRC and Forums. But it was a bit complicated for non net-savvy netizens to explore and participate. The recent forms of social networking has made it more easier and everyone …i mean everyone even grandad’s and grandmoms are participating.

  3. Publicly Private Outfitters

    Social media and the interconnectivity it provides has certainly affected the progress of culture across the globe. If not for the simple utility of sharing information, but the greater benefit of seeing further beyond “borders” and into the everyday lives of everyone.

    Edwin makes a great point, citing “realtime communication” as one of the major contributing factors.

  4. I cannot judge whether social media or the Internet had a major impact here. However:

    It is wrong to pick out Facebook and similar Internet-based tools as the enablers over the Internet as a whole. Facebook adds no real capabilities to the Internet and if there was a need for tools to e.g. inform the people or coordinate actions, this would not be a problem even without Facebook. I would go as far as saying that the technologies present twenty to thirty years ago, like email and newsgroups, would have been sufficient for these tasks, given an Internet of the current size.

    (Which is not to say that Facebook cannot make a difference in detail, e.g. by making it easier for people with limited technical skills to use various capabilities of the Internet.)

  5. Clay Shirky mentioned in his Foreign Affairs essay that it was the shared environment e.g. social unrest or what not, that gave rise to protests, while social media served as tools (previously it was the Xerox machines, faxes, and Luther’s 95 theses – printing press).
    You mentioned the Net with its over-built broadband that enables the physical and people connection, but I saw this as coming-out party of Twitter and Facebook, who overnight, became household must-haves, like the Beatles albums to 60’s Russians.

  6. I agree with you strongly for what you said. I’m a Sudanese and now a days we are using the same weapons such as txt, Facebook and Twitter and some other traditional means in order to break out the word to all Sudanese people inside and outside the country. Actually we have started our revolution and you will be heared about sooner but really we are facing a difficult situation to overcome…

  7. First of all I want to apologize for my lousy English. I am from Colombia and we lived the power of networks (in this specific case facebook) on 2008.

    After 50 years of death, kidnapping, bombs, soldier kids, drug dealing and more, 12 million Colombians raised and marched against FARC as a symbol of union agains war and violence. In only 3 days the organizers managed to get more than 10,000 people. After a few weeks there were organizers in most of the most important cities in the country trying to get more and more people. The phenomenon became intenational and those colombians who were in america or europe also participated, no matter the time difference. It was AMAZING.

    Look for “un millon de voces contra las FARC” at google images. You’ll be amazed too. Facebook is like a hero here in Colombia after that.

  8. One thing you didn’tmention is that the Net is neutral. Just as revolutionaries used it to organize, so the anti-revolutionaries and those in power use it to find out who, what, where when and why — which can sometimes have disastrous consequences.

  9. Good post. Nice reading.

    I agree with most of them that twitter or Facebook need not have been instrumental in this uprising but internet as a whole certainly has been. If not for internet, we would not have been discussing this issue on WordPress!!

    Talking about the local media, well I really dont know how powerful the media is in Egypt. One thing I can say of the India media is that, before Independence, media played a very important for the country’s independence. A very good tool for communication and there were a few brave media houses. Post independence, one of the main goals of the media houses has been to make money.

    One of the main reasons for the uprising in Egypt is the Jasmine revolution. This news spread from one county to another quite fast, thanks to internet and media. If Egypt’s revolutions is successful, it could be Yemen, Algeria and Jordan soon.

  10. Social media provides exposure. It’s not dressed up. It’s not detached. It kind of levels the playing field. It becomes more than a movement by a mob. It’s like putting a face on a cause. We’re more willing to get involved and take ownership and I think human beings are less likely to do something truly atrocious when they know they’re being watched.

  11. “In the end, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.”

    And that power resides in any leaders who have followers. The new power is “subscribers”. Economic and/or political. Just a thought.

  12. I guess that social-media have the power to spread a message real effective and quick. Still, you need key influencers and people who feel the urge of callin on a riot to get things started. For them to use any type of social-media makes the message go quicker then a note would. Giving them a lot of power on spreading a message, but do not influence the message itself. It would be way to much honor to say they were the reason the upheaval started. That is sololy the result of years of surpressing and all.

  13. the social media networks are just situational catalysts the main force behind this paradigm shift,among Arab league nations, is the will of the people craving for change so the locked down of IT services in EGYPT cant stultify this zephyr of change sweeping through that nation

  14. to argue, that media do not necessarily cause anything to happen, but are a constituent element in social processes, is certainly valid. to argue the opposite is perhaps silly, but not untrue (otherwise there would not be an entire field of ‘media effects’ studies reaching back a 100 years or so).

    both arguments are in fact part of the same discourse: that of media. in other words: our lives and lived experience get meaning in/through media, and that age-old process has been accelerating exponentially with the World Wide Web, social media, and mobile connectivity.

    in media we can now not only see the rich, famous and ruling live – we can see each other and our selves live.

    question is, how do we take responsibility for this new visibility?

    for now we can see our fellow human beings struggle, suffer, and stand up nonetheless. in real-time.

  15. I think FB, twitter and the rest should chill on taking credit for sooo many things, but not wanting to admit to anything negative…just a thought. I know computers, the net and social media does help get ideas out & about but social unrest has been around forever and will continue even if computer technology failed or disappeared…

  16. interesting post. reminds me of an article in the New Yorker a couple of months ago that stressed the importance of real social contact. social media are indeed mere accalerators. networks can not organize anything, they are a tool for organization or contact. very interesting! I have just committed myself of a challenge of not logging in to facebook from Feb.1st until the 21st of June. I want to know if I can be without it and how that influences my life. You can follow my experience on my blog, welcome to read it. Back to the subject. It is also very interesting to see how (Dutch) media already protrayed the uprising a revolution and how travel agents bring back the tourists, some of them had not even noticed the dramatic revolts but only seen it on their tv’s in the hotels. One begins to wonder what is really happening and to what extent..

  17. Tim Higgins

    twitter is just a modern day telephone/megaphone thats all…like every other aspect of human life, technology pops in to make it more convebient. So did Twitter contribute to the uprising – no more than the makers of a rolled up newspapaer used as a megaphone did in the past. No. The people contributed to what seems to be a righteous uprising.
    I am a non-religious apolitical commenter…I hope everyone finds the peace they need to become and be treated as humans.

  18. The internet is the infrastructure and thus the potential to connect and communicate. Any medium, i.e. software service like twitter or facebook, that is easy, fun, inexpensive, and has vast networking capability, will facilitate communication of all kinds, including revolutionary movements.