Friday, January 28, 2011

Twitter, Facebook, Revolutions, and Spectacle

I think I should call this post, "Twitter, Revolution, and the Narcissism of Internet Commentators."

Internet commentators, such as myself, seem to have a certain fascination with the relationship between the Internet and political revolution. I think it is that, we derive our power from the power and importance of the Internet: If the Internet is powerful enough to cause a revolution, then we are powerful too.

But as we all know, revolutions do not need the Internet. Historically speaking, the Internet is so new that almost no revolutions can claim it (or, the Internet can't claim them). Revolutions need organization and power, and the Internet can help organize quickly and massively (for either revolutions or flash mobs of people who dance in stores). The American revolution had armies fighting, the French revolution had the Bastille, The Russian revolution had the red army and the white army and the murder of the Tsar and his family, the Chinese communist revolution had the armies of Mao and Chang Kai-shek. None of these had the Internet.

The recent uprising -- a failed revolution? -- in Iran had the Internet, and cell phones, and smart phones, and current communication technologies that allow people to organize and share messages on a massive scale with unprecedented speed. (The telegraph was the first communication technology to separate communication and transportation, and it was an amazing thing.) But the Internet, with its Twitter and its Facebook, did not bring down the regime there. Burma is still Myanmar, China is still slowly destroying Tibet, and there are other examples one could mention, each with its own history, complexities, disagreements, and more than two sides to each one.

Twitter and Facebook share in a criticism that has been made about television: That we watch it, we feel we are part of it, but we are not, we are in fact at home watching television (and many of us do so from our nice, safe, Western nations, vast distances from the real action, yet here it is in our living room on the screen). Twitter and Facebook, the technologies of the moment, are like this but to even more of an extent: We can see the tweets from people who we believe are actually there, on the ground, surrounded by riot police -- as long as they tweet in English, that is, and English is never the language of the nation in question, nor is it ever clear how educated one has to be, or what social class one belongs to, if one tweets in English and its not your native language. Clearly such people are not tweeting for their local audience.

That is not a criticism, however, but it is occasionally overlooked. Knowing your audience is always important, as is knowing about the message sender if you are the audience.

Somewhat akin to slacktivism, I am sure someone has written about this feeling of immediacy we can get from tweets before. I think these communication technologies are important, but their endless hyping stems from a misunderstanding: The current embodiment of digital communication technologies allows us to communicate widely and freely, which is an important change from past communication technologies. But it is not about Twitter, and it is not about Facebook, they are merely the names of the embodiments of the forms we are using today. This is instead a more enduring story, one of people, and how these technologies let us do what we have always done, that is, connect, be it to plan a meeting for coffee or an attempt at revolution.

Edit: This isn't to say we don't care about our fellow human beings, or that we don't want to see what it happening to them. Often we do.

See also this article (the second half mostly) at the New York Times by Scott Shane.

And see this blog post by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, fellow academic.