credit to Creative Tools on Flickr

Is Facebook an open tab in your browser at this very moment?  Bets on that it is, and if not, that you’ve checked your page earlier, possibly with a wincing grimace as you have fourteen notifications of photos tagged from a 21st birthday party.  Social media crept in as part of our lives; with your ex-crush from third year asking you to sell him radishes on Farmville, to your landlord twittering about his breakfast cereal, most acknowledge platforms of social media to be inexpressibly inane time-wasters.

However, in the past few months, social media has dominated the mainstream media for the changing role it plays in how our world is shaped today.  Fear not, I will not (and frankly cannot) go into geek-speak about revolutionary 3D megagig 60 inch plasma online hugging systems, but will draw your attention to how social media platforms have truly become the extensions of human interaction on levels far beyond and above the ‘poke’.

Cyber-utopians believe digital tools of social networking can draw up revolutions in countries that block traditionally censored news websites.  The media latched on to this idea, some awarding the US a pat on the back for offering Arabs the technology they needed in the struggle for democracy.  Personally, I think this is attributing too much to the likes of Twitter, and I am not alone.

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell is often attacked as a neo-Luddite; last October he published an article deriding the notion of the “Twitter Revolution” – he argued that the internet can be an effective tool for political change when used by grassroots organisations as opposed to enflamed individuals.

Social Networking was, however, undeniably used to publicise, and even organise protests in the Middle East. The central organisers of Egypt’s Facebook movement would not be considered revolutionary leaders in the sense that they stood in the streets giving speeches – and Hosni Mubarak has a particularly misty and murky track-record in dealing with these traditional bastions of freedom.  Instead, these young men, and women, exercised leadership in organizing rallies and crucially, translating their desires to the international community, thus gaining crashing waves of support long before international political leaders had decided what their official stance was.  These Facebook revolutionaries even went into hiding before they embarked on their online crusade – just as leaders of a revolutionary cell would. Egyptian cyber-activists also worked with their Tunisian counterparts – though to assume, as the media seems to, that all this happened by chance as random individuals took to their computers is frankly, ridiculous.

Cyber-activism has been a huge part of recent politics in the Middle East.  Western corporations have seeked to encourage and fund these new waves of defiant online journalism, though usually with little input as activists try to remain independent of Western influence.  However, in September 2010, Google flew a dozen Middle Eastern bloggers to Budapest for the ‘Freedom of Expression Conference’, offering support for those living in an increasingly uncertain time where freedom of expression slowly ebbs further and further in the name of security.

Of course, there is something adorably arrogant about us strutting about claiming Facebook and Twitter will change the face of modern politics, as though it is the first time technology has come into revolution.  If we look back in history, we would note the invaluable role of telegraphs in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution which linked cells in a country as huge as Russia; or the key role of tape-recorders and fax machines in the 1979 and 1989 Iranian revolutions. Of course, you knew that. Oh, you didn’t? Well that’s alright, neither did I, as the fascination with technology’s role in these revolutions is restricted to a few academics, for the most part, we’ve forgotten. Go on; give your fax machine a hug – they aren’t nearly appreciated enough.

Will we remember Twitter and Facebook’s roles in this odd springtime of 2011? For now, yes, of course. Twenty years down the road, we may be preoccupied with the latest innovation and it’s effect on our society to remember that mankind’s greatest skill is improvisation – if desperate, we can use a platform invented to get laid at college to burn through years of oppression and censorship and spur the world to creak and shift into change.


Jenna Al-Ansari