Social Media and the Egyptian Revolution Redux
I was recently part of an on-line discussion that started when a colleague suggested that one way to start thinking about the role(s) of social media in the Arab revolutions would be to look at Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together (Basic Books, 2011).
Not, many of us thought, a frutiful line of thinking.
As my colleague Philipp Budka responded on the European Association of Social Anthropologists’ Medianth list:
The Turkle book/idea is highly problematic, as she more or less continues to propose an isolation theory towards digital media practices. In doing so she is stark contrast to most of the sociological/anthropological research in this area that sees online activities closely related to offline social practices (e.g. extension of “offline” social relations online).
In other words, Turkle’s recent work has claimed that:
Technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone. But it also drains us as we try to do everything everywhere. We begin to feel overwhelmed and depleted by the lives technology makes possible. We may be free to work from anywhere, but we are also prone to being lonely everywhere. In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void,but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.
I don’t want to knock Turkle’s work, which “is the result of [her] nearly fifteen-year exploration of our lives on the digital terrain” and is “[b]ased on interviews with hundreds of children and adults” but this kind of sweeping generalization and universalizing of culturally specific data contradicts two key assumptions I see as at the core of the anthropology of media:
- Empirical studies of people’s feelings about and practices with media produce local, situated knowledge and while this knowledge may be scalable the process of moving from particular to general must be pursued cautiously with attention to context and alternative possibilities.
- Technologies do not carry inherent cultural meanings structured into their form, so that their use shapes us in inevitable ways.
Let me elaborate on this second point. The jacket copy for Turkle’s book reads
We shape our buildings, Winston Churchill argued, then they shape us. The same is true of our digital technologies.
With all due respect to Churchill, it’s more complicated than that. Ethnographic studies have shown that the buildings we construct in ways consistent with our beliefs and values do not so much shape us as enable us to live in ways consonant with our cultural values and beliefs. The same appears to hold true for technologies.
Pierre Bourdieu’s early essay “The Kabylle House” remains one of the best descriptions about how houses embody cosmologies, and how people use these meaningful spaces to organize their ways of life. But though the shape of the house creates these possibilities, others are equally possible. There are fascinating studies of migrants moving into the houses in their host countries and living in them “wrongly” as they creatively re-imagine the spaces (including an essay one of my Intercultural Relations students wrote about how she “lived wrongly” in her German apartment, much to the consternation of her landlady).
Now to be fair to Turkle, the text of the book is a bit more complex and nuanced than the description suggests. For example, when she writes “Online, we face a moment of temptation” she is definitely implying strong human agency within a structure. But contrast this with other passages like “Technology has become the architect of our intimacies” and “In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down” which take a very technological determinist and universalist tone with which I am uncomfortable.
There is a good critical discussion of this point by Nathan Jurgensen here.
Finally, there is the problem Philipp alludes to, which is that the current sociological and ethnographic descriptions of media practices suggests that in most cases around the world we find social media (and other media) used to extend, contribute to, and comment on offline practices, rather than isolating us from them.
Certainly this is true of the Egyptian revolution. Key sites like the Piggipedia were created to comment on and extend revolutionary activity from offline into on-line life.
Other key sites–like the Kullina Khaled Said and April 6th Facebook pages–were created to organize specific protests in particular times and places but expanded through use to become much more than this. Such social media sites allowed people to locate other like-minded anti-regime citizens in the tens of thousands, overcoming an off-line isolation created by the structure of everyday civility, state control of public space, and censorship. This on-line community building in turn led to ever larger recruiting for off-line resistance activities.
The general trend among scholars (especially in anthropology) is thus away from approaches that focus almost exclusively on people’s social media activities toward holistic approaches that examine (among other things)
- how those media are integrated into wider media ecologies
- how social media practices aimed at political outcomes are linked to other social media practices
- the extent to which media practices are embedded within the contexts of the users’ lives off-line (including, here, especially political activities)
This is not a new approach for anthropologists. Just compare it to economic anthropology. Economists are interested in economic activity so they look at economic transactions–and almost exclusively at the distribution of goods, with little attention even to production and consumption–and describe and analyze these activities in isolation from the everyday lives of the people engaged in these activities.
Anthropologists have at least for the past century insisted on looking at economic activity within the larger web of human activities and institutions. This conceptual difference leads to such dramatically different results that it is difficult to even read and compare a mainstream economic account of phenomena with an ethnographic study of the same place.
When I was a journalist, if I was assigned a story on “the role of social media in the revolution” I would immediately look for revolutionaries who used social media, and academics who have something to say on the subject. This would lead me, almost inevitably, toward a position more like Turkle’s than one in which social media is interconnected with many other aspects of everyday life and political action.
I’d write a very good story, but while not “wrong” in the sense of facticity or empirical description, it would necessarily leave out much that should (from an anthropological perspective) be necessary for a good analysis of the role of technology in ongoing political movements.
One reason for being wary of Turkle’s approach is the fear that it may contribute to a narrative that overemphasizes the agency of social media in the Egyptian revolution, or in contemporary revolutionary movements generally. This is not just a disciplinary difference; there can be real consequences in adopting one stance over another for the political movements themselves.
A recent article in the media studies journal Mediakultur entitled “Wearing shades in the bright future of digital media: Limitations of narratives of media power in Egyptian resistance” by Karin Gwinn Wilkins, argues that in their news coverage of the Egyptian uprising, “U.S. media rely on Orientalist narratives, not only essentializing complex communities to a reductive tale of hero, victim, and villain, but also privileging the role of social media as an anthropomorphic heroic sidekick, indispensable to the success of the movement.”
In other words, global media reduced the complex realities of contemporary political change in Egypt to the story of a handful of young, attractive underdog heroes (the youth revolutionaries) who battle a master villain (Mubarak), who has all the power of the state and its media at his command, thanks to their special, seemingly insignificant weapon (social media).
Whether or not these narratives have real-world consequences in shaping the interpretive frames of their readers/viewers/listeners, they certainly have consequences for the revolutionaries.
While some Egyptian revolutionaries, like Wael Ghoneim, deliberately contribute to these narratives, the majority are keenly aware of the extent to which narratives that privilege the agency of social media underplay the decade-long work of laying the foundation for this uprising, work that includes a lot of very interesting media efforts, some wildly successful, some very much less so, but also a lot of legwork, face-to-face meetings, work with opposition political parties, passing out flyers in working class areas and so forth.