I’ve watched more Al Jazeera today than I have in the past 10 years. The protests in Egypt have turned this into the news network’s coming-out moment, much in the way news events in the 1980s put CNN on the map. The reasons for this should be fairly clear for the professional journalist. We’ve been cutting foreign news bureaus over the years to squeeze out a few more bucks for shareholders, and so when crisis happens overseas we are not well positioned to cover it in any kind of detail. It’s why I criticized the Chilean miners coverage so much last fall; because of coverage like that, we cannot be ready for this.
In moments like this, there is a vacuum. So while U.S. journalists are still packing their bags to parachute in and cover Egypt, we turn to what we have. Al Jazeera is streaming coverage online. Citizens armed with mobile tools are covering this for us on the ground, giving us video, pictures and Twitter messages. This is the building blocks of news now when the journalist-observer is not there to see it for themselves.
Given all of that, it’s hard to argue against social media as a tool for citizen journalism, but what about as a tool for activism? We’ve had an ongoing debate about whether social media causes these types of uprising, in part thanks to the fact that a respected name like Malcolm Gladwell entered the fray and told us the revolution won’t be tweeted. Even though he has never used Twitter, he seemed comfortable asserting that these tools aren’t enough to upend governments because they rely on weak-tie networks that quickly dissolve in the face of danger.
Causality is a big word, of course, but I don’t know of any new media evangelists who’d argue that something like Twitter can cause revolutions. At its most basic, Twitter is an online projection of ourselves in that we can take internal thoughts and broadcast them to a mass audience. What the medium does add is that it can help make social connections, help you find an audience for your thoughts.
When computer scientists talk about the Web, they talk about function. In this case, the Web is good for three things: information storage, informational retrieval, and information search. Twitter, in essence is not so much a medium for publication or conversation per se, but conversation is one of the ways we perform those three functions. Tweeting really is a type of information storage, adding information to the knowledge base that others can use. What those of us in the Twitterverse call “listening” in lay terms really is making use of information retrieval and search.
I like what my colleague Jen Reeves says when she talks about Twitter for journalists: it’s like listening to a police scanner in a newsroom, where you’re seeing bits of information go by. Some of it is background noise or information, and some of it is worth paying attention to or can be a call for action. For the citizen journalist, it’s no different. Twitter in this case is a scanner on the social conversation going on in your community. It’s information retrieval (learning about protests, locations, incidents, viewing pictures and video) but it’s also information storage. You add to the system and draw from the system, and sometimes it moves you to do something about what you’re getting from that community scanner.
This is why Gladwell was off. He asked the wrong question, because asking whether the weak-tie nature of Twitter causes uprisings in Egypt is just as crazy as asking whether the mere existence of a newspaper does. The medium doesn’t create ties. People armed with information create ties, and one thing we can say is that Twitter lowers the barriers for information diffusion a heck of a lot better than a newspaper because it is built on an architecture of social ties and hyperlinks.
In the case of movements, the storage/retrieval/search function of the Web (and indeed Twitter) act as a collective brain, a hive mind of activity – but the people are still the thing that matters. Gladwell notes that in other places where social media has been credited with revolution, people barely used the medium. This is true and utterly unimportant. Information spreads from online to offline as well, and a small user base can still infect a human-to-human network with information just as much as it can online. Weak ties online, then, can have an impact on the strong ties that exist offline, which is why classifying these online and offline publics as separate (let alone classifying all online activity into one public) never made any sense. These publics talk to one another, and they influence one another.
So of course social media caused the uprising in Egypt, and of course it didn’t. It truly is both and to try and pin it on one type of public is too simplistic. It’s never one thing. But the ecoystem of information has grown exponentially because of social media while (as Clay Shirky notes) barriers to participation have fallen. It fascinates me to listen to experts on Al Jazeera note that this movement in Egypt has no defineable leader, no one person giving impassioned pleas for the people to rise up and protest despite government threats.
In other words, the movement is mass, decentralized, and social. Sound like anything we know?