[iDC] The Twitter Revolution Must Die

Ulises Mejias ulises.mejias at oswego.edu
Sun Jan 30 16:32:43 UTC 2011

[for citation hyperlinks and images, go to


Have you ever heard of the Leica Revolution? No?

That’s probably because folks who don’t know anything about “branding”
insist on calling it the
Mexican Revolution. An estimated two million people died in the long
struggle (1910-1920) to
overthrow a despotic government and bring about reform. But why
shouldn’t we re-name the
revolution not after a nation or its people, but after the “social
media” that had such a great
impact in making the struggle known all over the world: the
photographic camera? Even
better, let’s name the revolution not after the medium itself, but
after the manufacturer of the
cameras that were carried by people like Hugo Brehme to document the
atrocities of war. Viva
Leica, cabrones!

My sarcasm is, of course, a thinly veiled attempt to point out how
absurd it is to refer to events
in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere as the Twitter Revolution, the
Facebook Revolution, and
so on. What we call things, the names we use to identify them, has
incredible symbolic power,
and I, for one, refuse to associate corporate brands with struggles
for human dignity. I agree
with Jillian York when she says:

“… I am glad that Tunisians were able to utilize social media to bring
attention to their plight.
But I will not dishonor the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi–or the 65
others that died on the
streets for their cause–by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.”

Granted, as Joss Hands points out, there appears to be more skepticism
than support for the
idea that tools like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are primarily
responsible for igniting the
uprisings in question. But that hasn’t stopped the internet
intelligentsia from engaging in
lengthy arguments about the role that technology is playing in these
historic developments.
One camp, comprised of people like Clay Shirky, seem to make
allowances for what Cory
Doctorow calls the “internet’s special power to connect and liberate.”
On the other side,
authors like Ethan Zuckerman, Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov have
proposed that
while digital media can play a role in organizing social movements, it
cannot be counted on to
build lasting alliances, or even protect net activists once
authorities start using the same tools
to crack down on dissent.

Both sides are, perhaps, engaging in a bit of technological
determinism–one by embellishing
the agency of technology, the other by diminishing it. The truth, as
always, is somewhere in
between, and philosophers of technology settled the dispute of whether
technology shapes
society (technological determinism) or society shapes technology
(cultural materialism) a while
ago: the fact is that technology and society mutually and continually
determine each other.

So why does the image of a revolution enabled by social media continue
to grab headlines
and spark the interest of Western audiences, and what are the dangers
of employing such
imagery? My fear is that the hype about a Twitter/Facebook/YouTube
revolution performs two
functions: first, it depoliticizes our understanding of the conflicts,
and second, it whitewashes
the role of capitalism in suppressing democracy.

To elaborate, the discourse of a social media revolution is a form of
self-focused empathy in
which we imagine the other (in this case, a Muslim other) to be
nothing more than a projection
of our own desires, a depoliticized instant in our own becoming. What
a strong affirmation of
ourselves it is to believe that people engaged in a desperate struggle
for human dignity are
using the same Web 2.0 products we are using! That we are able to form
this empathy largely
on the basis of consumerism demonstrates the extent to which we have
bought into the notion
that democracy is a by-product of media products for self-expression,
and that the
corporations that create such media products would never side with
governments against their
own people.

It is time to abandon this fantasy, and to realize that although the
internet’s original
architecture encouraged openness, it is becoming increasingly
privatized and centralized.
While it is true that an internet controlled by a handful of media
conglomerates can still be
used to promote democracy (as people are doing in Tunisia, Egypt, and
all over the world), we
need to reconsider the role that social media corporations like
Facebook and Twitter will play
in these struggles.

The clearest way to understand this role is to simply look at the past
and current role that
corporations have played in “facilitating” democracy elsewhere.
Consider the above image of
the tear gas canister “fired against egyptians demanding democracy.”
The can is labeled
Made in U.S.A.

But surely it would be a gross calumny to suggest that ICT are on the
same level as tear gas,
right? Well, perhaps not. Today, our exports encompass not only
weapons of war and riot
control used to keep in power corrupt leaders, but tools of internet
surveillance like
Narusinsight, produced by a subsidiary of Boeing and used by the
Egyptian government to
track down and “disappear” dissidents.

Even without citing examples of specific Web companies that have aided
governments in the
surveillance and persecution of their citizens (Jillian York documents
some of these
examples), my point is simply that the emerging market structure of
the internet is threatening
its potential to be used by people as a tool for democracy. The more
monopolies (a market
structure characterized by a single seller) control access and
infrastructure, and the more
monopsonies (a market structure characterized by a single buyer)
control aggregation and
distribution of user-generated content, the easier it is going to be
for authorities to pull the
plug, as just happened in Egypt.

I’m reminded of the first so-called Internet Revolution. Almost a
hundred years after the
original Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation
launched an uprising in
southern Mexico to try to address some of the injustices that the
first revolution didn’t fix, and
that remain unsolved to this day. But back in 1994, Subcomandante
Marcos and the rest of
the EZLN didn’t have Facebook profiles, or use Twitter to communicate
or organize. Maybe
their movement would have been more effective if they had. Or maybe it
managed to stay
alive because of the decentralized nature of the networks the EZLN and
their supporters used.

My point is this: as digital networks grow and become more centralized
and privatized, they
increase opportunities for participation, but they also increase
inequality, and make it easier
for authorities to control them.

Thus, the real challenge is going to be figuring out how to continue
the struggle after the
network has been shut off. In fact, the struggle is going to be
against those who own and
control the network. If the fight can’t continue without Facebook and
Twitter, then it is doomed.
But I suspect the people of Iran, Tunisia and Egypt (unlike us)
already know this, out of sheer

[Ulises A. Mejias is assistant professor at the State University of
New York, College at
Oswego. His book,  The Limits of Nodes: Unmapping the Digital Network,
is under review by

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