From Microblogging to Microperformance in Egypt
My April column for the Society for Linguistic Anthropology just appeared in the Anthropology News web site. It will also appear in the print edition. The topic is the tweetnadwa. The version below is pretty much as it appears in the Anthropology News version, except for the embedded video.
The claim that Egypt’s 2011 uprising was a “Twitter revolution” has been hotly contested, with numerous pundits taking one position or another depending on just what they mean by the term.
What is significant about the use of social media in the North African uprisings is not so much the technologies of blogging and microblogging themselves, but the creative capacity of Egyptians to invent new ways to use the technologies to organize resistance and try to build a new Egypt based on different, more representative principles than the Mubarak regime.
Among the most interesting of these in post-Mubarak Egypt is the emergence of a new kind of speech event, the tweetnadwa.
A tweet, of course, is a Twitter microblog entry, defined by a hashtag, limited to 142 characters but capable of linking to blog posts, web sites, photos and other texts. Nadwa is Arabic for a gathering of minds around a central topic—it is sometimes translated as council, seminar or symposium (the International Prize for Arabic Fiction uses the term to label its annual writer’s workshop).
The brainchild of blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, a tweetnadwa is a council of interested citizens called together by a Twitter message, to discuss a topic of public interest, in a form that is deliberately iconic of microblogging itself.
A tweetnadwa is called into existence through tweeting. A tweet goes out from the organizer to his or her followers describing the time and place. It is retweeted by its recipients to their followers so that it can rapidly reach several hundred like-minded individuals.
The tweetnadwa itself is led by a moderator, who chooses and introduces the topic, and calls on participants who have raised their hands to speak. Each speaker is required to keep their message extremely direct. Speakers are limited to one minute forty seconds—iconic of the 142 character limit of a Twitter microblog, and as he or she speaks a transcriber posts their words to a Twitter account, which is run in real time, and displayed on a large screen, along with photos and videos of the meeting, impressions posted by participants, both those present and those following the meeting through its Twitter stream.
The tweetnadwa’s iconicity with Twitter is certainly in part a reflection of, and tribute to, the important role Twitter played among activists with smart phones in helping organize resistance during the 18 days in Tahrir, and its capacity to engage international journalists, themselves also users of the microblogging network.
But it is also intended to function as a practical means of limiting speeches so as to increase participation. By establishing a rule of microperformance, 108 people can speak at a three-hour event.
In addition, by incorporating microblogging into the tweetnadwa, organizers expect that participation in the process will extend far beyond the few hundred people who gather physically to a host of others throughout Egypt.
Many have questioned whether a forum based on a technology used by only 130,000 people of Egypt’s 80 million can be called democratic, or whether it serves only as a resource for the “twitterati.”
In a January 30 interview with Ahram Online, tweetnadwa inventor Alaa Abdel Fattah (who has 109,000 followers), argued for the continuing value of Twitter as a democratic and revolutionary resource.
Abdel Fattah argued that Twitter users represented a fairly coherent community of “a mainstream of revolution supporters” as opposed to more widely used social media like Facebook which includes “a different range of groups representing different political powers, classes and backgrounds.”
But Twitter and the tweetnadwa do not represent an enclosed system of like-minded people talking only to themselves because “there is nothing isolated in the world; it is circle of relations after all…” That is, what happens on Twitter does not stay on Twitter, but extends into the wider democratic process through the work of journalists and the interpersonal networks of participants.
The first tweetnadwa was held early in the summer 2011, and the meetings continue to be held in 2012, including one on Twitter’s January announcement that it had developed technology enabling it to censor messages on a country-by-country basis.
Here’s an account of the second tweetnadwa on Al-Jazeera.