Frederick Noronha on Mon, 31 Jan 2011 12:37:17 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Twitter Revolution Must Die (by Ulises A. Mejias)

The Twitter Revolution Must Die
January 30th, 2011 · 12 Comments
photo by Alia Malek

photo by Alia Malek

Have you ever heard of the Leica Revolution? No?

That’s probably because folks who don’t know anything about “branding”
insist on calling it the Mexican Revolution. An estimated two million
people died in the long struggle (1910-1920) to overthrow a despotic
government and bring about reform. But why shouldn’t we re-name the
revolution not after a nation or its people, but after the “social
media” that had such a great impact in making the struggle known all
over the world: the photographic camera? Even better, let’s name the
revolution not after the medium itself, but after the manufacturer of
the cameras that were carried by people like Hugo Brehme to document
the atrocities of war. Viva Leica, cabrones!

My sarcasm is, of course, a thinly veiled attempt to point out how
absurd it is to refer to events in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere
as the Twitter Revolution, the Facebook Revolution, and so on. What we
call things, the names we use to identify them, has incredible
symbolic power, and I, for one, refuse to associate corporate brands
with struggles for human dignity. I agree with Jillian York when she

“… I am glad that Tunisians were able to utilize social media to bring
attention to their plight.  But I will not dishonor the memory of
Mohamed Bouazizi–or the 65 others that died on the streets for their
cause–by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.”

Granted, as Joss Hands points out, there appears to be more skepticism
than support for the idea that tools like YouTube, Twitter and
Facebook are primarily responsible for igniting the uprisings in
question. But that hasn’t stopped the internet intelligentsia from
engaging in lengthy arguments about the role that technology is
playing in these historic developments. One camp, comprised of people
like Clay Shirky, seem to make allowances for what Cory Doctorow calls
the “internet’s special power to connect and liberate.” On the other
side, authors like Ethan Zuckerman, Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny
Morozov have proposed that while digital media can play a role in
organizing social movements, it cannot be counted on to build lasting
alliances, or even protect net activists once authorities start using
the same tools to crack down on dissent.

Both sides are, perhaps, engaging in a bit of technological
determinism–one by embellishing the agency of technology, the other by
diminishing it. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between, and
philosophers of technology settled the dispute of whether technology
shapes society (technological determinism) or society shapes
technology (cultural materialism) a while ago: the fact is that
technology and society mutually and continually determine each other.

So why does the image of a revolution enabled by social media continue
to grab headlines and spark the interest of Western audiences, and
what are the dangers of employing such imagery? My fear is that the
hype about a Twitter/Facebook/YouTube revolution performs two
functions: first, it depoliticizes our understanding of the conflicts,
and second, it whitewashes the role of capitalism in suppressing

To elaborate, the discourse of a social media revolution is a form of
self-focused empathy in which we imagine the other (in this case, a
Muslim other) to be nothing more than a projection of our own desires,
a depoliticized instant in our own becoming. What a strong affirmation
of ourselves it is to believe that people engaged in a desperate
struggle for human dignity are using the same Web 2.0 products we are
using! That we are able to form this empathy largely on the basis of
consumerism demonstrates the extent to which we have bought into the
notion that democracy is a by-product of media products for
self-expression, and that the corporations that create such media
products would never side with governments against their own people.

It is time to abandon this fantasy, and to realize that although the
internet’s original architecture encouraged openness, it is becoming
increasingly privatized and centralized. While it is true that an
internet controlled by a handful of media conglomerates can still be
used to promote democracy (as people are doing in Tunisia, Egypt, and
all over the world), we need to reconsider the role that social media
corporations like Facebook and Twitter will play in these struggles.

The clearest way to understand this role is to simply look at the past
and current role that corporations have played in “facilitating”
democracy elsewhere. Consider the above image of the tear gas canister
“fired against egyptians demanding democracy.” The can is labeled Made
in U.S.A.

But surely it would be a gross calumny to suggest that ICT are on the
same level as tear gas, right? Well, perhaps not. Today, our exports
encompass not only weapons of war and riot control used to keep in
power corrupt leaders, but tools of internet surveillance like
Narusinsight, produced by a subsidiary of Boeing and used by the
Egyptian government to track down and “disappear” dissidents.

Even without citing examples of specific Web companies that have aided
governments in the surveillance and persecution of their citizens
(Jillian York documents some of these examples), my point is simply
that the emerging market structure of the internet is threatening its
potential to be used by people as a tool for democracy. The more
monopolies (a market structure characterized by a single seller)
control access and infrastructure, and the more monopsonies (a market
structure characterized by a single buyer) control aggregation and
distribution of user-generated content, the easier it is going to be
for authorities to pull the plug, as just happened in Egypt.

I’m reminded of the first so-called Internet Revolution. Almost a
hundred years after the original Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista
Army of National Liberation launched an uprising in southern Mexico to
try to address some of the injustices that the first revolution didn’t
fix, and that remain unsolved to this day. But back in 1994,
Subcomandante Marcos and the rest of the EZLN didn’t have Facebook
profiles, or use Twitter to communicate or organize. Maybe their
movement would have been more effective if they had. Or maybe it
managed to stay alive because of the decentralized nature of the
networks the EZLN and their supporters used.

My point is this: as digital networks grow and become more centralized
and privatized, they increase opportunities for participation, but
they also increase inequality, and make it easier for authorities to
control them.

Thus, the real challenge is going to be figuring out how to continue
the struggle after the network has been shut off. In fact, the
struggle is going to be against those who own and control the network.
If the fight can’t continue without Facebook and Twitter, then it is
doomed. But I suspect the people of Iran, Tunisia and Egypt (unlike
us) already know this, out of sheer necessity.

[Ulises A. Mejias is assistant professor at the State University of
New York, College at Oswego. His book,  The Limits of Nodes: Unmapping
the Digital Network, is under review by publishers.]

Please see the original article at the link above, it contains useful
links. Thanks to Ramnarayan.K <> for drawing
attention to this via the GII-India mailing list. -FN

Frederick Noronha :: +91-9822122436 :: +91-832-2409490

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