If you are looking at technology you are wasting your time.
Such was one full reply to our request for interviews with protest coordinators on how they used media during the Egyptian revolution. Our introductory email was carefully crafted, and after having followed the Egyptian protest movement for some time, this was disheartening–both to be so casually blown off, and to be lumped together with the host of foreign hyphenaters (decrying another “mediaplatform-revolution”).
But the response is understandable. One doesn’t have to spend long thinking about what revolutionaries actually risked and endured to have your feathers vicariously ruffled by the way social media has been bandied about as a cause in western media. It is not strange that activists take offence to this after having spent weeks in the shadow of violence, months in strategic preparation, and a decade engaged in street-level heavy lifting. Nor is it helpful that heavy-handed social media attributions tend to come from Western media, easily associated with other toe-stepping such as giving specious credit to Gene Sharp or false claims about US financial support.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is how this rhetorical backlash has filtered back into the transnational discourse among thoughtful commentators, as a reincarnation of marketing paradigm: Stop Fondling the Hammer, and Focus on the House. The hammer-fondling argument is an appealingly straightforward admonition to focus on mission instead of platform. Its logical extension in the context of social movements would be to focus on how traditional media tools function in a protest context and the strategic embededdness of media users and uses – that is, both chisels and carpenters?
Jilian York from the Open Net Initiative illustrates this well. She has been doing excellent and important writing on the intersection of digital media and politics for a long time, and recently posted on How Social Media Helped Spark the Arab Spring:
My take, as I’m sure you know by now, is that tools are just that…tools, and that a revolution comes from human power, but that nevertheless, such technology has become integrated into our lives (and lives of Egyptians, Tunisians, etc) to the point where it’s only natural that we would turn to them in the case of social movements and protest. […She then turns to] the question of what role these tools did in fact play, emphasizing their role as amplifiers rather than as organizational tools, while noting that that backchannels like email and private groups (as well as SMS) do exist and do matter.
York’s quote is taken from a brief narrative presentation of a power point presentation, and does not represent the nuance of her thinking on the subject, Yet the quote does, I think, represent a kind of rhetorical shorthand that is all to easy fall back on, and which does not do justice to the striking ways in which technology functions in the Arab spring. Because it is increasingly difficult to deny that digital media operate differently than traditional media in this context. Aynchronous, real-time communicative practice that is structured on social preferences, existing social networks and an incomprehensible wealth of information, has implications for the way users of that media structure themselves in dynamic power constellations. To quote another perfunctory presentation of a presentation: faster is different.
The two points above about chisels and carpenters are important. Indeed, this kind of digital communication is most striking when it is mobilized in tandem with other (traditional) media platforms, and when grounded and adapted to specific dynamic contexts. (Alix Dunn and I argue in a forthcoming book chapter that these phenomena of hybridity and contingency also function well as analytical frames, will post and link when published.) Yet the hammer metaphor fails to satisfy. And extending it to nail guns doesn’t help, though it stands for the increases in scope and speed that accompany most comparisons of e-tools and traditional tools. What is missing is a representation of how digital media impacts the collective experience of networked communication in dynamic power structures. For this, “tools” don’t leap to mind, as much as background technologies for amplification (prefab) or collaboration (blueprints?). A social structure that manifests itself, like barn-raising, perhaps comes closest, yet fails to represent the hands-on, individualized experience digital media offer.
Trying to analogize digital media as a “tool” in the context of protests is in fact rather something of a non-starter. This lies perhaps in the difficulty of distinguishing between platforms and the information ecologies that they simultaneously engender and represent. Because at bottom, what is compelling about digital media-use in the Arab spring has little to do with individual platforms. Though it is tempting to avoid silly rhetoric by equating media “tools”, doing so rather misses the point, even as it plays an ontological shell game. To argue that digital media tools are “just tools” ignores the dramatic social consequences these technologies have on dynamic power structures. Simultaneously, this equation binds discourse to the register of platforms, a register at which the fondling of tools may proceed wanton and unbridled.
In his excellent post, Election 2012: It’s Not Facebook. It’s the Data, Stupid, Micah Sifry sketches a comparable phenomenon in the realm of presidential campaigns. Sifry’s topic is social media campaign strategies, and like the Arab spring, there is a lot of hyperbole out there. Sifry’s timely contribution is to point out that the value of social media for a campaign does not have to do with exposure or “amplification” per se, as much as how it enables information to be mobilized in distinct relationships between individuals and movements.
Simply put, “while tallying up Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers can’t hurt anyone, those sorts of numbers don’t automatically translate into volunteers on the ground.” What bridges that gap, according to Sifry’s analysis, is social media cum data acquisition. Data mobilization has long been a cornerstone of political campaigns. The distinction here is both the vast scope and breadth of data collection that social media enables, and that this collection is actualized through the active (indeed often enthusiastic, if not always thuroughly informed) consent of individuals. This becomes clear as Sify explains why Obama’s tremendous edge over GOP candidates has nothing to do with a choice of platforms or number of fans.
The truth is that in the sure-to-be hard-fought election of 2012, Obama has two current advantages. He starts off with a huge lead in online infrastructure–a massive installed base, if you will–and thus in useful data. Even if his 13-million-member email list has gotten old and open rates have declined, which they undoubtedly have, he still towers above the rest of the field in the raw size of his contactable base. Nothing that any of the Republicans currently entering the presidential contest are doing online comes close. No one else, for example, has a my.barackobama.com-type platform (aka myBO), where supporters are enabled to create their own blog, fundraising page, or organize house parties or online groups–and where all the resulting engagement data provides the campaign’s managers with an incredible trove of information about people’s level of interest and activity.
…”So now, Obama can, for example, query his list to send a message to every self identified Democratic female 35 and older on Facebook with over 500 friends and get them to take action based on republican attacks to destroy Planned Parenthood,” one veteran Democratic online strategist told me. “Or cut their list based on self-identified male Republicans in New York City and send a message to them from a sender who may resonate, like Mike Bloomberg,” he added.
This is a compelling perspective that differs from the hammer analogy in important ways. What is at issue is not a platform for constructing any type of concrete “house” – be that promoting brands, broadcasting information or coordinating action. This is rather a complex socio-information ecology in which the interactions between information, power and media are slippery to say the least. Where does the line get drawn between grounded social networks and the facebook app that awards points for suggesting friends? Between the data analysis enabled by technology and the strategic mobilization of that data? Between digital network ties and social capital in the kind of targeted communications described above? I don’t rightly know. But it seems shortsighted to characterize my.barackobama.com as just another tool like direct mail or television attack ads, just as it does for #jan25, despite the number of important differences in the two paradigms.
It will take a lot of work and research to understand what role digital media plays in political and social processes, be they elections or revolutions. And the differences will be important. In the course of that theorizing, the rhetoric we use will be important both in a constructivist sense, as well as for the inspirational and bridge-building potentials this discourse tends to engender. Eventually, we might come up with the right metaphor, but likely not before we have to completely overhaul popular tropes for media in the broader sense. In the interim, I think it is a great thing if revolutionairies continue to challenge (and mock) the way we consider (and misunderstand) the role of media. We should expect this in analysis and across the cluttered tabletops in Horreya. It will likely be most prominent and poignant on Twitter.