Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Tunisian Revolution on Facebook?

with 10 comments

by Weiner


I’m not sure if David Kirkpatrick, author of the pro-Mark Zuckerberg The Facebook Effect, and David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times journalist recently reporting from Tunisia, are the same person. I suspect not. Still, I thought it was a remarkable coincidence when David D. Kirpatrick cited the following as evidence for Tunisian strongman General Rachid Ammar’s growing popularity:

On Facebook, a staging ground of the street revolt, almost 1,700 people had clicked that they “like” a Web page named “General Rachid Ammar President” and emblazoned with his official photographs.

The coincidence proved especially powerful because the first few pages of David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect celebrated Facebook’s ability to organize popular netroots opposition to FARC in Colombia.

This in turn reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent New Yorker article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.” In response to those who praised the role of Twitter and Facebook in bolstering Iran’s recent and shortlived “Green Revolution,” Gladwell noted that real protest, like the 1960 lunchcounter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, takes place with tremendous effort, face-to-face organizing, and genuine sacrifice: putting jobs and school on hold so you can sit at a segregated lunchcounter for days on end. That kind of movement takes much more energy than simply clicking “like” on a Facebook page or retweeting a political tweet. Of course, people did actually take to the streets in Iran, but the point is that they were the real revolutionaries, not the ones who watched safely from their computer monitors.

I have no idea what’s about to happen in Tunisia, or Lebanon, or anywhere else where revolution is brewing. I hope that Facebook and Twitter can aid progressive and popular social movements. But with an eye to history, I, like Gladwell, suspect that real change comes only with real sacrifice, with solidarity forged through strong emotional ties rather than cyber-friendship.

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10 Responses

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  1. This is what David Fitzpatrick (the book author) wrote on his fan page “Facebook gives every user a broadcast platform. That in itself changes politics in every country in which Facebook operates. The book opens with a description of how this changed the landscape in Colombia in January 2008. This aspect of the Facebook Effect is now spreading rapidly around the world, as Tunisia’s tumult indicates.” He then cites this Daily Beast article: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-01-15/tunisa-protests-the-facebook-revolution/?cid=hp:beastoriginalsR1

    DRDR

    January 16, 2011 at 11:15

  2. As for my views, I think you’re overly dismissive of social networking’s effects on politics, while author David Fitzpatrick is far too gushy (he refers to facebook as a “fundamentally new way of communicating” or some nonsense). His statement above that it “changes politics” is devoid of meaning: any technological change “changes politics.”

    The right way to think of facebook is as a utility that lowers transaction costs of communicating. Facebook can be used to organize protests. Facebook can keep a political cause in people’s minds on a day-to-day basis. Groups can be emboldened knowing how many “like” them and are supporting them. Yes, you’re right that ultimately someone needs to mobilize physically to accomplish anything. However, many of these hyped political movements wouldn’t have reached a critical mass (or at least not as rapidly) were it not for social media.

    Nevertheless, it’s overreaching for Fitzpatrick to say social media is doing anything fundamentally new, because any action done on facebook could theoretically (but not practically) have been achieved through a large in-person gathering.

    DRDR

    January 16, 2011 at 11:20

    • All very good points– how information is transmitted, at what speed, reaching what numbers of people and allowing for what kind of political participation at a mass level is important, but it’s not a sufficient explanation for revolution.

      You might be able to think about this in terms of the construction of Railroads and the rise of German nationalism in the 19th century. RR networks created a more effective community and made rural/peripheral communities less isolated. So speed and dispersal of communication as forming a more connected community. On the other hand Railways could also play a factor in fomenting a sense of modern alienation — the confrontation of different communities and practices [rural meets urban for instance] facilitated by RRs might also result in a reactionary politics invested in fortifying regional exceptionalism.

      The point being that I think Facebook can be a very useful tool for distributing information and stoking enthusiasm, but it’s hard to know what the impact of this information will be in terms of either inciting or alienating those who might be involved in revolutionary action.

      luce

      January 16, 2011 at 11:47

      • That’s really interesting about the railways.

        Sounds similar to the claim today that the Internet and cable, offering easy access to a wide variety of views, has resulted in an equilibrium where people consume more media that reinforces their views.

        DRDR

        January 16, 2011 at 14:53

  3. Agreed– as Gawker aptly put it: Social Media Didn’t Oust Tunisia’s President, the Tunisian People Did
    http://gawker.com/5734434/social-media-didnt-oust-tunisias-president–the-tunisian-people-did

    The question is, why this urge to explain things by social media? Laziness? An inability to engage in actual regional politics? Technology fetishism? A sociological tendency for middle-class journalists to only see middle-class actor? Or has everyone been informed by a historical fallacy that middle class actors are really the ones who pilot the revolution?

    luce

    January 16, 2011 at 11:29

  4. Thanks for all the comments. I agree I came off a bit too harsh on Facebook and Twitter. I think they are great tools for disseminating information and communicating with larger numbers of people, which can of course be useful in organizing social movements. I just think it’s important to recognize the real physical sacrifice and effort required to enact change.

    weiner

    January 16, 2011 at 16:39

  5. […] recent post on Facebook and Tunisia and the discussion that ensued is an example of how we’ve begun to conceive of the Internet as […]

  6. More via author David Fitzpatrick: “The astonishing story of Facebook’s role in the Tunisian uprising of recent weeks, told in detail by Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic. To repeat: The Facebook Effect is the consequence of Facebook being a platform for the empowerment of its users. It is no panacea. It remains crude. But it is having a big impact on the world. Take that Malcolm Gladwell…”

    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/01/the-inside-story-of-how-facebook-responded-to-tunisian-hacks/70044/

    So there may be more “sacrifice and effort” necessary in the digital part of revolution than you might first think.

    DRDR

    January 24, 2011 at 19:53

  7. […] blog has already broached the question of what causal role we ascribe to technology in historical events, particularly in recent […]


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