Saturday, January 29, 2011


The news from Egypt has hit the circular point, where the 24-hour news channels have run out of all the actual new news for the day and are repeating the same stories on an approximately 10-minute cycle. One of the major themes that keeps coming up, of course, is the role of Twitter and Facebook in starting the uprising.

Should we be surprised by this? I mean, really? It's a significant story in that, and only in that, it is further evidence social media has reached some point of maturity in the global culture,  or at least emancipated minorhood. But this cycle happens with every communication technology at some point early in its career.

One of the pieces of the American and French revolutions that always stood out to me was the constant use of pamphlets as a means of social protest. When I was in high school, that did not always make sense to me; I understood the use of provocative and disruptive literature, but I grew up in a time when print media had already lost a lot of its bite. The newspaper and magazines did not continue the trend of great muckraking journalism; the major investigative reports were coming from television news. And books could certainly be persuasive, but it takes so long, it seemed to me, to write, edit, publish, and distribute a hardcover that it seemed impractical for the speed at which revolutions move.

I did not understand the reality of what these pamphlets were. As Dan Carlin said in a recent podcast, one was a member of the Press because one owned a press. What I should have been thinking of were people going home, writing an angry treatise on their computer, and printing a few hundred copies on their desktop printer to hand out the next day. In our culture this is usually associated with crackpots and church newsletters (no parallel intended), but in the Revolutionary War era people were taking these pamphlets seriously.  It really is a direct ancestor of the modern social media superstar; one person posting to their Facebook page, an activity usually used by high school students to complain about gym class, in this charged climate becomes important, interesting news. People listen.

The same happened with radio and television. A major part of American opposition to the Vietnam war is attributable to the images people saw on TV, and it was Edward R. Murrow's reporting that finally brought down McCarthy. It was a little harder with these technologies, though, because the means of broadcast were not broadly available. Only a few people were able to put their message out there, but those people had power.

So now it is social media's turn. And the means of distribution are literally in everyone's hands. Anyone with a cell phone suddenly becomes a broadcasting station able to reach millions. Every Tweet becomes a Tweet heard 'round the world, even as the volume makes it difficult to listen to any one. So why are people surprised this is become a powerful tool for protest and revolution?

The shock about so noble a usage comes because so many people had dismissed social media as a base medium. Twitter, Facebook, and the rest were dismissed as childish tools good for no more than gossip and games. The people that feel this way, though, forget that the power of a tool lies not within itself, but the applications people turn it to. And a tool that can tell millions of people around the world what I ate for lunch can also tell them to meet me at the Capitol and bring their pitchforks.

1 comment:

  1. In the 1970's, I used the new speed and power of photocopying to churn out leaflets for political rallies and anti-war protests. As news changed, new leaflets could be created in just a few minutes - much faster than what used to require cutting a mimeograph stencil.