We Are Not All Clay Shirky

Sophia Azeb
Not to say that technology did not play a role in aiding the world’s ability to follow and support the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, but we must understand that Twitter and Facebook were mostly utilized by Egyptians (such as Wael Ghonim) in order to continue spreading information on the locations and times of protests. When Mubarak’s regime, with the complicity of Vodafone and other communications companies, quickly shut down internet and mobile connections, the protests continued. In fact, they grew larger. And this was solely by word of mouth combined with the infuriatingly obvious lack of coverage by Egyptian state-owned television coverage. When you cannot find a single stall open to buy bread, and your ful vendor is running down the street with hundreds of others, waving an Egyptian flag over his head, does one really need Twitter or Facebook to figure out that something is happening?

Twitter and Facebook is a lifeline for those of us unable to contact our families back home and hear first-hand what they are hearing, doing and thinking. Al Jazeera Arabic’s coverage was addictive but I certainly spent more time on Twitter communicating with those closer to home for most of my news. For that, I am immensely grateful that these particular tools of social media exist. I will not, however, concede the incredible unity and power of the people to their use of social networking tools. The time I spent translating speak-to-tweet messages into English is not a confession that the revolution could not have happened without Twitter, but something that made many limited to watching the revolution unfold feel useful, if only for a short time, in advancing our fight for freedom.

For the non-Egyptian, non-Yemeni (again, the list goes on) observer in the West, Al Jazeera’s English coverage (and the effect of the manufactured controversy surrounding Al Jazeera in the first place) introduced many to these revolutionary movements who would otherwise lack access to such detailed coverage. During the first week or so, live communiqué translations, video feeds of Meydan Tahrir, Alexandria, and the shifts in Egyptian state-run news service coverage would have been limited to the Arabic-speaking world without Al Jazeera English. Hell, even the White House depended on good ol’ Al Jazeera to get past Mubarak’s internet shutdown. It is still necessary to remember, however, that Al Jazeera provided a service (an amazing one, of course) to those of us outside of Egypt. Egyptians used the presence of Al Jazeera news cameras to their own end – for instance, displaying the police identification cards of the “pro-Mubarak supporters” – and we benefited from the people’s ingenuity.

In the end, it is the people of Tunisia and Egypt who threw out the regimes that were suffocating them. In the end, for Algeria, Iran, Gabon, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco (maybe soon, Puerto Rico?), it will be the people who are fighting for their freedom. Victory will belong to the people. People, who use social networking to advance their causes and share news with the outside world, but people, just people, nonetheless.

As a friend remarked the other day: “Not to engage in Glenn Beck-style Iran-parallel drawing, but there was another February 11th that didn’t require Twitter to happen.”

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Sophia Azeb

Sophia Azeb is a writer and scholar based at the University of Southern California. She tweets as @brownisthecolor.

1 Comment
  1. I personally don't understand why when frustrated young people in North Africa mobilize themselves online we have to start debating about 'twitter revolutions' and 'new social media' but when frustrated students in Europe organize their protests online its not debated with quite the 'passion' by pro-Twitter revolution people. Why can't we accept that it's part of the world we live in today, and marvel at how people got around these barriers with fantastic things like Speak2Tweet or Tor Project or Sukey (London), rather than debate to what extent this or that tool was influential. In a way I think it shifts from the value of the protests because at one point during the Egypt uprising, it was easier for some media outlets to describe this as 'they're revolting because they've no internet' not 'they're revolting against tyranny, poverty and oppression'. It didn't help that this was the point at which Ban Ki Moon, Obama and Cameron finally found the courage to officially speak about Egypt and they too waffled something about turning the internet back on and the internet is part of the human right to communicate. Of course I don't dispute this and I'm glad Egypt came back online, but like Sophia is basically saying, Twitter and Facebook don't make things happen it's the people.

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