I generally relate my posts to my teaching, but today I am only writing as a learner. I am reading Wael Ghonim’s book Revolution 2.0, and it is leading me to think about the role of social media for social activism. There is a tremendous power to communities that form on Facebook and news that spreads through Twitter, but there are also limits. For all of the new ways that ideas are spread, it still comes down to the face to face interactions.
Facebook groups can plan events, share ideas and create a sense of community. Twitter can spread information quickly to a global audience, as well as to local people. Still, for all of the electronic planning that took place in Egypt, it was still a matter of people taking to the streets. For countries where internet access is not universal, messages need to be spread with printed pamphlets and word of mouth. All of the cyber outrage in the world does not matter unless it moves people to take an active role. I was surprised how uncertain it was in Egypt that people would actually turn out for the protests, despite the support online.Clicking the like button on Facebook is not the same as staring down the well-armed security forces.
This is new territory, for all of us. We have seen cases in Tunisia and Egypt where social media seem to have been used to effect change. Will these cases be the beginning of a trend or historical anomaly? Is this a game of cat and mouse, where the powers that be will catch up and shut down the progressive forces where they are? If groups have significant but shallow support, will they know it before they try to mobilize and fail? I have no answers to these questions, but I wonder about them.