Twitter revolution?

Pluto author Joss Hands looks at the debates over the role of new social media in the Tunisian uprising.

Popular uprisings are now regularly accompanied with speculation as to whether they are ‘Twitter’ revolutions, and much of this speculation consists in counter-claims that Twitter’s importance has been overblown. We have seen this now with at least three different events – in Moldova and Iran in 2009 and now Tunisia.  A flavour of this is captured in the debate between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky.

A search through the many reports and commentaries on this topic suggests there is not some kind of consensus of the naïve, who are cheerleading for Twitter, and whose naivety can be knowingly upended. Indeed there appears to be as much, or far more, scepticism on the topic than there is support. In fact it is difficult to locate the explicit Twitter revolution arguments, against which many critical commentators claim they are reacting. Even stories that do present a somewhat enthusiastic tone are still equivocal, one that has generated sceptical commentary is Elizabeth Dickenson’s piece on Wikileaks and Tunisia in Foreign, but in fact this is still a fairly measured commentary.

The common feature of these critiques is that they tend to isolate Twitter from its context and frame it as an overhyped tool rather than as a capacity. This attitude internalises a form of technological determinism. A tool implies an object or technique used to directly leverage an outcome, and thought of in this way Twitter’s impact can be judged on some kind of scale to be argued over– and from here scepticism can easily spring. Yet the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ are no more separable than ‘mind’ and ‘body’. Twitter, social media or the Internet as a whole, can’t be isolated as the cause, or not, of anything, because they are part of the fabric of social life and the terrain of struggle.

What is significant in these uprisings is that Twitter, whatever its actual role, is a new element in the struggle. From that perspective it stands out, and therefore is an inevitable subject of speculation – and so it should be. Thus when there is discussion about a ‘Twitter Revolution’ in Tunisia it is not quite as stupid as the sceptics suggest. The phrase should not necessarily be taken literally, but read as part of the necessary task of articulating a new element into the revolutionary process, in which new dynamics and new capacities need to be absorbed and understood.

So it is that ‘Twitter revolution’ can mean a lot more than a blunt empirical claim, but rather the recognition of a new historical moment. Ethan Zuckerman rightly argues that ‘Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a Wikileaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update.’ But that is not to say that Twitter, and social media more broadly, haven’t helped set the tone for these uprisings.

@ is for Activism

Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture

Joss Hands

Examines the transformation of politics through digital media, including digital television, online social networking and mobile computing.

£17.99 only £16 on the Pluto site

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