Tweeting the Revolution: Twitter Didn’t Create the Revolution, But It Didn’t Hurt It

by Matthew L. Schafer

As protests broke out in late January, Egyptians turned to the Internet and other technologies to communicate.

It’s hard to miss the various articles lamenting many social media supporters’ claims that Twitter and Facebook helped shepherd revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt into reality.  In one often cited example, Devin Coldeway, a writer at TechCrunch, argued that “people, not things, are the tools of a revolution.”

“While it’s plain that [social media] were part of the process, I think the mindset of the online world creates a risk of overstating their importance, and elevating something useful, even powerful, to the status of essential,” Coldeway wrote.

Even the CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo, recently said, “It’s not our place to comment on whether we’re important or not, ‘the emphasis on Twitter and Facebook’ takes away from what these people have accomplished.”

Malcolm Gladwell, a writer at The New Yorker, sided with the those arguing that Twitter had little, if any, effect on the revolution.  He suggested that the most important thing about the revolution was the revolution, not the use of social media.

“People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented,” Gladwell wrote.  “They did it before the Internet came along. …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 place.”

These are just a few examples of those, who rightly so, point out that the focus of revolutions are the people and the motives for the revolution in the first place.  Indeed, Internet technologies are simply a means to an end.  Nonetheless, to cast aside the relative effect of these tools is to dismiss what will likely have a long-lasting and repeated impact on future movements and revolutions.

Despite the fact that Twitter and Facebook likely had an impact in both organizing the revolution and connecting it to the outside world, many who downplay these effects argue that recognizing the power of social media somehow diminishes the success of the Egyptian people–and others–in speaking truth to power.

“Twitter and Facebook are indeed useful tools, but they are not tools of revolution—at least, no more than Paul Revere’s horse was,” Coldeway wrote.  “People are the tools of revolution, whether their dissent is spread by whisper, by letter, by Facebook, or by some means we haven’t yet imagined.”

First, it would appear obvious to almost anyone that Facebook and Twitter are not the equivalent to Paul Revere’s horse.  Sure, there have always been technologies that have assisted dissent and revolution.  Yet, what Coldeway and other seem to ignore is the degree of technologic advancement; not all technology is created equal.  Indeed, social media is available to millions of people at relatively little cost.  (Although, there should be a concerted effort of governments around the world to bring those technologies to more people.)

Second, to argue that Twitter and Facebook are not tools of a revolution is simply ignore the obvious. Of course Twitter and Facebook are tools of revolutions. They connect thousands of people with thousands of other people who are similarly motivated. They take organization to an efficient and remarkably incredible level, and they connect the revolution to the person on his Blackberry two continents away.

"Like any technology, acceptance is slow, and adaptation is even slower. Nonetheless, in the case of Facebook or Twitter, the acceptance is surprisingly fast."

This not only allows for the effective execution of a revolution, but also brings the world into the revolution. It gives everyone–even someone in Sao Paulo or Chicago or Moscow–a personal stake in the revolution.

This isn’t the first time Twitter and other social media have seen pushback.  Indeed, this isn’t the first time that Coldeway has questioned the effects of Twitter.  In a 2009 post, Coldeway argued that “what can be said in 140 characters is either trivial or abridged; in the first case it would be better not to say it at all, and in the second case it would be better to give it the space it deserves.”

What this misses, however, is the stream of tweets itself.  No single tweet is read in a vacuum–at least it shouldn’t be.  When anyone types in #Jan25 into a Twitter search, he doesn’t see just one tweet.  Instead, he sees an entire stream of comments and articles (in relatively chronological order) that lead the user to content elsewhere on the Internet, or shares a personal note on the subject.

Take for example this tweet which was sent from a landline after the Internet had shut down, and Goggle, along with SayNow and Twitter, created a call-in tweet program; using the program, a person a thousand miles away or another member of the revolution could hear a friend or stranger saying, “So many people have been killed already and injured.  We have achieved so much so far.  We cannot go back.  We will win.”

Even if the streams of tweets appear to be a torrent unorganized chaos, journalists are doing what they have always done best, bringing clarity to it all.  Indeed, some journalists used Twitter to explain and update on the ground developments in Egypt.  One notable example was featured by The New York Times recently; Andy Carvin of NPR used his Twitter account and other social media to organize incoming information and seek out confirmation.

“Some people have called this type of reporting as curation, as if it’s something totally new,” Carvin wrote to The Times. “Well, Twitter might be relatively new, but the notion of journalists gathering, analyzing and disseminating relevant information isn’t new at all. I see that as curation as well.”

Like any technology, acceptance is slow, and adaptation is even slower.  Nonetheless, in the case of Facebook or Twitter, the acceptance is surprisingly fast.  It’s the adaptation that is lagging.  Yet, it appears that many–even journalists–are adapting to and taking advantage of these technologies.

It’s impossible to predict how these tools will be used in the future to inform, organize, and educate.  For that reason, we should not dismiss the effects of these technologies as somehow tangential and unimportant.  To disregard their potential effects is to disregard the reality of the situation.  And no, recognizing the effect of the technologies does not diminish the success of the revolution.


Flickr/Asthma Helper Flickr/Desmond Leo Flickr/MissChatter

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
This entry was posted in Local Journalism, Media Policy, Mobile and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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