Why Egypt's 'Twitter revolution' was a western myth
Social media narratives are appealing because they allow us to create our own feel-good stories about revolution
Charles Trew , Friday 25 Jan 2013
What exactly was the 'Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’ Revolution? In the west, a whole theory of revolution emerged as protests erupted in Egypt.
Journalists and commentators alike claimed that the inherently democratic tools of social media exposed people to new values and ideas. How fitting, they argued, that these new media tools should provide the catalyst for the revolution, the tools which launched it and the method for reporting it. The tidy narrative of the 'Facebook Revolution' was born, to be repeated and celebrated everywhere in the media.
In reality, the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution’ had very little to do with the activists on the ground who were protesting or how they used these tools during the 18 days. This social media ‘revolution’ was really about how the west experienced events in Egypt.
Of course, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube did have a role to play: activists used them to highlight the initial round of protests, to distribute information, to facilitate organisation on the ground such as medical help or blood donations and to communicate across the square to warn of charges and attacks.
But, without meaning it, this information took on a life of its own and started to play a role that was never intended or expected. When an online onlooker re-tweeted the status of an Egyptian activist, they ‘reproduced’ it: by copying, sharing and redistributing it they removed it from its original context and placed it into the context of their own projected self, their online avatar.
What role is it that this information shared on social media started to play? It is difficult to explain to an activist who demonstrated in Tahrir the sensation of experiencing those events over Twitter. It was intoxicating, tense, confusing and, in its own small way, scary. Without any independent way of verifying what you were reading, you had to build an image of what was happening. Tweets would appear on the screen with a million different narratives from which you knitted one, super-narrative of horror. As new tweets appeared and the old ones scrolled down the screen, time was simulated and when watching videos posted by activists in Tahrir, it was like having a virtual avatar through whose blurry eyes you could look. The noise was the most haunting- without being able to see what was going on, to judge the distance of shots or shouts, the imagination ran wild.
In short, the whole experience was about filling in the gaps by using whatever information you could gather to create an image of events: stitching together narratives to make up for the absence of information verified by your own senses. When the tweets stopped there was nowhere to go for information but the imagination. By watching on Twitter, you built the narrative and imagined reality.
Why does this matter? In simple terms, because its new. Traditional media works differently: commenters tell you what to think by repeating their droning analyses hourly on 24-hour news channels. Their well-staged shots provide an overview of the scene and their description of events pretends to be ‘objective’ and comprehensive. In short, there is little room for engagement with information which is dictated to you and which is placed firmly within a specific context.
For the first time, by using social media, the watcher could start to create narratives themselves. By collecting information themselves from a variety of sources, the person watching became the editor of their very own news portal. Thousands of users across the west shunned their traditonal news outlets to set up their own, user driven news sites on a variety of forums from student advice services to football fan sites.
This has profound consequences. By becoming their own news editors, they started to develop a sense of ownership of events -- they repeatedly stated that they felt they were actively engaging with the information they had found, not simply consuming news and following the official line. For someone who posted about the revolution on Facebook, that story literally became an event in the timeline of their online and public projected self. It became something which happened to them.
By taking on an editorial role, these users became actively involved in shaping the narrative of the revolution and some even felt that they were contributing in some way to the revolution itself. However, central to eiier own reporting of the revolution was their own selves: it seems impossible for the self to be absent in new media space. It would be like setting up a Facebook page for someone else instead of for you.
What it reveals is that people desperately wanted to get involved.
Could this have been a good thing? Does it matter what drove their need to get involved? On the one hand, this feeling could be manoeuvred to raise international awareness of the revolution, which many considered critical to avoiding a bloodbath. You could argue that it was used to build a sense of solidarity and to establish networks of support.
On the other hand, however, is the problem that whatever solidarity that was achieved was fundamentally imagined and so remained specious and transitory. Yes, people really did care when watching events online and many of the scenes were literally heart-wrenching, but fundamentally this solidarity relied on the imaginative engagement of the onlookers and we love to imagine happy endings.
This kind of engagement with events favours short-term, feel good narratives, largely because the kind of activity that the onlooker must engage in to build the imagined reality is not sustainable in the long run: eventually, these users turned oTf twitter and started returning to normal online activity, happy in the knowledge that the revolution was won. So much for solidarity.
The end result is that, for followers on Twitter, the revolution lasted 18 days and its story is happily encapsulated in the pervasive notion of the 'Facebook Revoution'.
But on the second anniversary of the January 25 uprising, the struggle continues. The silence from the west is deafening.
Charles Trew is blogger and MA Graduate in International Conflict Studies at Kings College London. His thesis was on western perceptions of the Egyptian revolution through social media