On revolutions: two blog posts that stopped me in my tracks

Two blog posts – one notes for a Newsnight feature that never got made, the other an academic paper – made a deep impression on me when I read them last week, and have stayed with me since. I’ve recommended them on Twitter and to anyone whose will listen. For me they together mark a turning point in the development of the social web and the way it affects society and politics. They, and the events they analyse have implications for business, our personal lives and just about everything else as well.

I’m still digesting their implications, and the implications of the past few weeks in Egypt and Tunisia. This blog post comprises my notes on both pieces.

The two blog posts

First of all, if you haven’t read them yet, I cannot recommend highly enough taking some time to read these two blog posts (and many of the comments on the former):

Paul Mason: Twenty Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere

Dan McQuillan: New Social Networks With Old Technology – What the Egyptian Shutdown Tells Us About Social Media

Kicking off everywhere

Paul Mason’s post pulls together social, economic and technology factors that have led to what seems to be a global wave of street protests, activism and unrest…

At the heart of it all are young people, obviously; students; westernised; secularised. They use social media – as the mainstream media has now woken up to – but this obsession with reporting “they use twitter” is missing the point of what they use it for.

Some insights I took from his post were:

  • This isn’t all about technology, but technology’s effect have created the context for the revolutions in progress: “Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.”

  • Networks erode hard ideologies: He talks about the protest movements globally having at their heart the “graduate with no future” who is not prone to “traditional and endemic ideologies”. From Islamism to socialism, structured ideologies ultimately end up in movements becoming sclerotic as the forces of bureaucracy and internal power struggles take place. I’d say that this rule may hold true for corporations and other organisations ultimately.

  • The collapse of command and control communications as an instrument of authoritarianism: Because of social media “truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable”. This reminds me of something I learned early in PR about crisis communications – gossip and misinformation often moves faster than facts because it is illicit and has perceived value in human social networks. You pass on rumours and urban myths and spam because of this (“KFC has no chicken in it”, “New Facebook app lets you see who has viewed your profile”). In places where the media and government are spreading the lies and misinformation the hunger is for truth and the value in the social network comes from spreading. If truth is illict, it spread faster?

  • Transparency, and effect of the social web’s pressures on organisations, reveals not just information but how systems work: As Paul writes:

People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”.

One point which Paul makes links his notes to Dan McQuillan’s paper/post:

oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

It has always been thus. Undergrounds don’t need the internet, they have have happened, have thrived before. But social media doesn’t just provide new communications methods, it brings a new mindset. Over to our second blog post: New Social Networks With Old Technology – What the Egyptian Shutdown Tells Us About Social Media

New Social Networks with Old Technology

Dan lays things out pretty in his abstract:

This paper argues that this use of pre-digital technologies to form the kinds of infrastructure afforded by modern social technologies is evidence of a radical change in people’s perceptions of their world and its connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies. This flies in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.

This is an insight which is very valuable beyond the protests also. To put it pithily, using social media changes how we expect the world to work. It changes what we expect from relationships, how we find out about things, talk about things, organise things.

Dan also puts a certain bit of unhelpful misreporting/social media hype to rest when he discusses the “Thank You Facebook” image which featured in a lot of Western media. It’s a mis-translation at best…

201102160928.jpg

The mis-translation of a protester’s sign from Tahrir Square encapsulates the argument about the impact of social media. The photo that shows a middle-aged protestor in Tahrir square holding a handwritten sign in Arabic. The only English word on his sign is ‘FACEBOOK’, in large red letters carfeully highlighted in black. Many western blog and media outlets published versions of this with the slogan translated as ‘Thank you Facebook’. In fact, as I have verified with correspondents in the Egyptian diaspora, the correct translation is ‘Thank you, Egypt’s Facebook youth’. The gulf between these sentiments is huge; the wrong translation elevates the technology, whereas the real one identifies the youth as agents of change. But in labelling them ‘Egypt’s Facebook youth’ it also recognises that they’re acting differently to what came before, that their post-deferential dynamism reflects the character of their favoured tool.

Acting differently doesn’t just mean using Facebook, Twitter et al:

My contention is that social media is neither the cause of major change, nor irrelevant to it; but that it’s impact is most powerful in cementing new ways of thinking and acting based on connectedness.

Dan walks us through a timeline of the cutting off of the internet in Egypt and discusses the range of “pre-Web” technologies people used to keep the networks working. “Older” tech like ham radio, modems and telephones came into play, along with tech like Tor started to be used:

The Tor project reported on January 30th that “Over the last three days, 120,000 people — most of them Egyptian — have downloaded Tor software”. The Tor project was a platform for participatory solidarity as word spread across the social web of the need for people to run Tor relays and bridges on their computers, and graphs on the Tor blog show the dramatic rise in the number of bridges around the world after 25th January.

I like as well, the clear way Dan dismisses the whole discussion about whether “it was Social Media wot won it”:

Arguments over whether a particular social change would have happened in the absence of social media are somewhat sterile; there is no experimentally controlled comparison where we can re-run a revolution without Twitter. But more importantly those arguments fail to go to the core of the impact i.e. that social media has changed the global sense of entitlement to real-time peer-to-peer communication within fluid networks of association.

He goes on to say “social media has changed the global sense of entitlement” toward being able to have these kind of communications, connections, relationships… That sense of entitlement means cutting off the internet is

The strands of thought in these two posts, and the context that they bring isn’t a case of Western democracy and freedom prevailing. Democracy as it is currently practiced is also under pressure – witness Wikileaks and the friction between the US State Department and Twitter. Those promises and ideals that Google and its ilk had about protecting our personal information from intrusive state authorities? They are being tested now and will be tested more so in the coming months and years.

Businesses too will be tested by these forces. Transparency is one they need to consider, but also changed expectations of customers, employees, of everyone about how they work. All organisations, not just corrupt and authoritarian governments may well experience challenges from networks, from new ideas about what they should do, how they should be organised.

: : As an aside, how great blogging is still as a form for getting these thoughts out. Before blogs i might never have read Dan’s analysls outside of an acdemic paper months later. Instead I get his analysis the moment it is finished. The notes Peter made for the Newsnight feature would have stayed in a notebook once the piece for the programme was dropped. Instead he was able to not waste that intellectual effort but share it and reach a huge audience (I don’t know what the traffic is, but the number of comments and re-tweets of the article suggest it was significant.

2 comments

  1. Richard Stacy

    What I think this shows is that social media is not so much a medium of information – it is more a medium of connection and action. Access to information is now no longer the problem that ‘media’ solves – the game has moved on.

  2. CharlieO

    I read the opening line of Paul Mason’s post incorrectly, and did a quick double-take – turned out Mubarak was ‘teetering’, not ‘tweeting’

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