Much of the discussion about the role of social media in the unrest in Egypt and in Tunisia has been polarised. But arguing over whether something was a Twitter, Facebook or Wikileaks revolution is a dead end.
Instead there is a need to understand how digital networked technologies have affected political protests and flows of information.
As Mathew Ingram has highlighted, “the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook.”
But social media has certain attributes that set it apart from the fax or the pamphlet and, arguably, increase its impact.
Networked technologies allow individuals to identify each other, come together and share information without the need for central coordination and leadership.
These are networked publics. danah boyd explains networked publics (PDF) as “simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice.”
The key thing to understand is how the network technologies provide the means for individuals to act together, seemingly with a common purpose, yet without central leadership and coordination.
As boyd writes (PDF):
Networked publics are not just publics networked together, but they are publics that have been transformed by networked media, its properties, and its potential. The properties of bits regulate the structure of networked publics, which, in turn, introduces new possible practices and shapes the interactions that take place. These can be seen inthe architecture of all networked publics, including social network sites.
Essentially networked technologies such as Facebook make it easier for people with similar concerns to connect, share information and mobilise.
In the words of Zeynep Tufekci, “social media lower barriers to collective action by providing channels of organization that are intermeshed with mundane social interaction and thus are harder to censor.”
Here lies the potential of networked, social media technologies such as Twitter and Facebook – how social interaction by individual can morph into collective action.
What we need to understand is the role of these networked publics in the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. To deny or evangelize about their impact is pointless.
But something is happening here as networked technologies collide with pent-up frustration. And that, as we say in the academic world, is an area that merits further research.
(Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera English)