Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New Media, Old Problems

It is, increasingly, a familiar story – young, political idealists sound a call to action via Facebook and Twitter.  Thousands sweep into the street demanding that established, authoritarian regimes cease their nefarious ways and return power to the people.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  In the summer of 2009 we waited with baited breath to see Mir-Hossein Mousavi swept to power in Iran on the wings of a Green Revolution powered by Twitter.  It didn’t happen.  Then a couple of weeks ago in Tunisia it did, sending President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family packing.  Today, in Egypt, it is anyone’s guess.  Mubarak lies low, and the army disappears while cellphones, Facebook and Twitter take a back seat to bricks and clubs, blood, bodybags and bandages.

As technologies go Facebook and Twitter are relative babies. Were they children, neither would be old enough for middle school.  However, they are huge babies.  Were Facebook a country, at 500 million users, it would be the third largest in the world, trailing only China and India in population.  It makes a strange sort of sense then, that revolutions fostered by these new media often founder on adolescent arrogance and childish assumptions.

Egypt provides a painful example.  Fed by Tunisia’s success, the opponents of Mubarak’s long and often churlish regime assumed that they, too, could Tweet thousands into the streets and break the tyrant’s grip on power.  And, like many adolescents, they were right – almost.  Mubarak, as the opposition planned, ceded power, but only in that he declared he would not seek re-election.  “WTF?”  And now he has, at least for the moment, faded into the mist – neither present, nor gone.  Similarly, the official trappings of power have withdrawn from Tahrir Square, apparently replaced by the “non-governmental” thugs who have often been the unofficial enforcers of unpopular policy during the Mubarak years.  The protestors had childishly assumed that the old regime would be swept away by a flood of digital demands and the sun would rise on a new Egypt – fresh and full of promise.  Instead the sun set on bloodshed and the morning is very much in doubt.

The opposition’s vision may yet materialize.  But I am quite confident that it will not be done in 142-character Tweets, or with Facebook status updates. New media, we are learning, are powerful tools for claiming the moment, for mobilizing the mob, for occasionally winning the election.  But they have yet to prove themselves in the more pedantic arenas of governing, democracy, and compromise.  In the adult world the devil is in the details.  And those details, it seems, are still hammered out the old-fashioned way: face-to-face, word-by-word, and person-to-person.

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