I have recently written a contribution for the Madhouse of Ideas, which is an interesting non-profit project for collecting stories, experiences and reflections about Twitter and sharing them with people around the world. You can read my contribution called “Twitter in times of havoc” here. The point I make there is, that Twitter is a powerful tool for spreading the word, especially in times of personal and political turmoil, which in some cases may intertwine. In taking reference to using Twitter by protesters in Tunisia and people in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wanted to emphasize the important role social media can play in the world today. When I was writing my original contribution I guess most of the world did not know that the happenings in Tunisia will soon spread to other countries like Egypt. It’s incredible when I reflect on it, how fast one event triggered the other. And again it has been fascinating to observe how people inside and outside Egypt have been using Twitter and other social media to comment on the events as observers, participants and citizen journalists, share their stories, encourage the struggle for democracy from outside, generate external support and engage people in helping Egyptians to get the word out.
One of the striking examples were the reactions to the launch of a voice-to-Twitter service by Google & Twitter, which was set up to help Egyptians overcome the Internet shutdown and spread information outside of Egypt. It is definitely a technology that helped in times of havoc. But somehow it has been striking to observe the glorification of Voice2Twitter and Twitter itself by some Twitter users, especially outside of Egypt. Some of them even contributed the major role in the upheaval to Twitter. An example of this is relected in this Tweet: “In thirty years no one could do what #twitter did in less than 140 characters for #Egypt and #democracy.” With all respect, one has to draw a line.
It is an interesting phenomenon, though. Some claim it may be the Western perspective to believe that people in developing countries can launch a revolution by means of such channels as Twitter. But the Western world can poke fun at this idea too (see the Daily Show) or coin phrases that reflect this belief – “cyber utopianism” and “net delusion”. The idea of “net delusion” is related to the observation that some social media advocates tend to believe that the Web can make crucial, long-waited for changes happen. This is an interesting observation, which is the case not only in relation to political events like the ones in Egypt but also in case of education. I just have to grin when I think about how often did I hear that social media have the power to change education. Don’t get me wrong, my point is that social media can support some important tendencies, ideas or “memes” (Dawkins, 1976), like the need for democracy or for modernizing the formal educational system. Twitter and other social media can play an important role as new channels of communication and cooperation. But they are just that – channels – they are appropriated by people having certain intentions, mindsets, attitudes etc. They are not magic wounds automatically doing good to the world. So to wind up I want to stress this aspect – let’s just keep it in mind that we are responsible for the way we use the tools at our disposal.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford, Oxford University Press