As Egyptians celebrate the overthrow of their autocratic government hot-on-the heels of a similar uprising in Tunisia, the world is waiting to see what happens next. Will the fervor of revolution spread to other countries in the Middle East? Will Egypt embrace democracy wholeheartedly following Mubarak’s exit? And perhaps most plausibly, will this result in Western civilization being destroyed by a group of underground, radicalized Marxist Islamists who will establish a new world order. But let’s get back to grown-up chat for a second. One of the interesting things about the events in Egypt is how the media was quick to label it The Facebook revolution. But was it? Can social media really inspire us to go from mindless poking and sheep throwing to overthrowing governments?
I stumbled across a very thoughtful post on TechCrunch that argues people, not **things** are the source of revolution. I’d encourage you to read the whole piece, but the author essentially argues that while the idea of a Social Media revolution might make for good headlines, it’s rather misleading because tools such as Facebook are only facilitators and not instigators of revolution.
This is a particularly interesting topic for me because the idea that social media can cause social change is quite an exciting one. It could have incredible ramifications for democracy and how citizens participate in society and government if – indeed – it’s proven that people can be moved to set fire to their Farmville crops, slaughter the cows and start organizing themselves around issues and causes.
But as appealing as the idea might be, the old adage that “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink” is particularly true when it comes to social media. Think of it in these terms. In America there are now more gyms than at any time in the history of the country, but that doesn’t stop the average citizen from weighing more than a medium-sized oil tanker. That’s because for every gym that opens there’s a drive-thru Krispy Kreme. For every elliptical machine purchased, there’s a large Burger King chocolate shake. There are a lot of things competing for our attention and – due to the rather simplistic and fickle nature of humanity – the mindless, instant gratification stuff often edges out the more worthwhile.
The same is true online. For every Jumo there are 4 LOL Cats. And last time I checked there were significantly more people giving up their time to read some amusingly mis-spelled captions on pictures of cats in toy cars than devoting time to change the world.
So while Facebook and Twitter have connected us together like never before, that connection alone is not enough to engage people in wanting to change the world. Perhaps a more salient question for journalists to ask about Egypt is this – would the revolution have happened if Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist? Nobody will ever know, but my suspicion is it would. Egyptians finally had enough and decided to protest – just like the countless number of revolutions that have unfolded in the last 20 years. As a teenager I remember witnessing the collapse of Communism and the regime change it sparked in Eastern Europe. From East Germany to Romania, governments fell and citizens united during a time when the Web didn’t exist. Oppressed people eventually reach a limit when they can take no more, and irrespective of the tools available to them will take action.
Social media is like the hermit who wins a new car in a sweepstakes. It’s an incredible tool to use, if only somebody could actually persuade him to go outside. And that’s the biggest challenge the social-media-for-social-change advocates have to address. Getting people to care.
This is clearly a tricky challenge. If you look at who’s making people care – in terms of giving their time and attention to do something – it’s rather depressing. Farmville (and now Cityville) is one. Charlie Bit My Finger on YouTube. The hilarious cats mentioned above. We’ve built a culture that is squarely dominated by entertainment and thus it should be no surprise that the Web follows a similar path. So here are my suggestions for action/cause groups to pursue this year:
1. BP Catz – Add captions to user generated images of kittens frolicking on oily beaches
2. TARPville – Create a city that is built entirely from Government bailouts and handouts
3. Angry Kurds – Bring down the despotic Iraqi regime in this arcade classic
Viva la Revolution!
Tags: social media