'My goal is to simplify complexity.' So said Twitter creator Jack Dorsey, in a recent interview with Charlie Rose to explain his new C2C credit card project, Square. Well, you sure don't get much simpler than 140 characters, and in an increasingly complex world, who doesn't crave simplicity? Yet revolutions are anything but simple events, and anyone who has been pointing to social media like Twitter and Facebook as the underlying mechanisms to explain the recent uprisings in Egypt and other Middle Eastern states is sorely mistaken. And if anyone has been doing the job in perpetuating that myth, you simply have to look at traditional media outlets.
The role of Twitter in fomenting the mass anti-government protests in Egypt was initially questioned by Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent The New Yorker blog:
Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring
down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be
said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker,
“high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But
surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the
protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some
of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please.
People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was
invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in
East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they
ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and
brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred
years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one
another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as
the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to
communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less
interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first
Perhaps even more damning was this Sunday's simple observation by The New York Times' op-ed columnist Frank Rich, that at no time were the protests last week more intense and populated than the day immediately after the shutdown of social media sites by Mubarack and his gang:
The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger. “Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”
Citing Evgeny Morozov's new book, The Net Delusion, Rich reminds us that there were only 19,235 registered Twitter accounts in Iran at the time of that country's American-dubbed 'Twitter Revolution.' That's .027% of the Iranian population, hardly enough to create a groundswell. And, of course, there is the growing likelihood that authoritarian regimes will put digital tools and technology to their own malevolent purposes, to spread propaganda and trace dissident networks.
Like Rich, I would not begin to deny the power of social media for 'organizing, publicizing and empowering participants in political movements' around the world. Certainly there is great potential there - when mainstream journalists quote unidentified tweeters, this enables getting word from people right where events are happening - but unless you know the source, and the overall context of the situation, what does it mean? As the technology evolves, so too will the impact of social media. For example, early last week, Google and Twitter unveiled a new speak-to-tweet service (@speak2tweet) that lets anyone with a voice connection upload a tweet, even without an Internet access. But to attribute such historic movements to social media alone is simplifying matters to such an extent that I doubt that even Jack Dorsey would approve.