Guestpost: Communications Tools, Agency, and Anxiety

by Clay Shirky on October 10, 2011

Reading the literature on social media and the Arab Spring, there’s a recurring sentiment I’ve run across:

- Jeff Neumann: Social Media Didn’t Oust Tunisia’s President — The Tunisian People Did

“Did social media have an effect on events in Tunisia? Undoubtedly, yes. Is this a social media revolution? Absolutely not.”

Achalla Venu: What happened in Tunisia and then in Egypt?

“So the common trait between the revolution in Tunisia and the ongoing revolution in Egypt is — they all are human revolutions not caused by Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, Flickr and many others but they all played their part.”

Jillian York: Not Twitter, Not Wikileaks: A Human Revolution

“I am glad that Tunisians were able to utilize social media to bring attention to their plight. But I will not dishonor the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi–or the 65 others that died on the streets for their cause–by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.”

Despite their affirmation of the importance of social media during the uprisings, these authors (and many others) want to assure us that their analysis remains appropriately human-centered, that they are not making the terrible mistake of describing tools as if they had some sort of agency.

But here’s the funny thing—we describe our tools as having agency all the time. This isn’t a mistake, or an accident. It’s an essential part of our expressive repertoire around technology.

Consider, as an example plucked from the communal corpus just now, the Henckels 8-Inch Bread knife, as reviewed on Amazon

Very nice knife, cuts the bread without any effort and looks good doing it.

…or this, also googled up an instant ago, from the story of ships operated by the Furness Bermuda Cruise Line

During the 1920s, Forts Hamilton, Victoria and St George carried the
passengers.

Now you might expect the people worried about tools and agency to be all over stuff like this: “The knife cuts the bread?! Humans cut the bread, thank you very much. And ships carrying passengers? What’s this, Thomas The Yacht Engine?”

But try re-writing the sentence about the ships, maybe something like “During the 1920s, people who wanted passage to Bermuda were transported on the Forts Hamilton, Victoria and St George“? You could write it that way, but you wouldn’t; the sentence doesn’t just bloat, it stops being about the ships, which was the whole point of writing that sentence in the first place.

Furthermore, no one is confused by the first version. No one accuses the authors of the above-quoted sentences of making ontological commitments to talking ships or enchanted knives. And yet, if you claim (as seems to be plausible enough to discuss) that weblogs were useful to the Kefeya movement in Egypt in ways that no other tool could replicate, or that camera-phones were useful during the Pearl Roundabout protests in ways that phones without cameras weren’t, people get (really) worked up about those claims, on the grounds that anyone talking about whether technology made an important difference during the uprisings must also be making the hidden claim that technology caused those uprisings.

Curiously, this anxiety doesn’t seem to pervade other, related disciplines. I’m pretty sure the “Revolution in Military Affairs” people are happy to take human goals on the battlefield as a given, and can then debate the effect of longbows at Agincourt or Panzers in the Ardennes without worrying that this dishonors the dead.

Some of this may be about the newness of the Arab Spring, but agency anxiety seems to attach to communications tools more generally—in The Social Life of MediaPeter Burke and Asa Briggs attack Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, specifically on the grounds that her reference to agency is inappropriate.

And yet, despite their commitment to keeping agency firmly lodged in the human, even Messrs. Burke and Briggs end up concluding (a little glumly, to my eye) that:

…in thinking about the way in which printed matter encouraged political consciousness, while a more acute political consciousness led in turn to a rise in the consumption of printed matter, it is difficult to avoid a phrase like ‘the logic of print’ (pg. 88)

Quite.

Every day, we happily occupy a linguistic world where guns kill people and alcohol makes them drunk. Those sentiments and a billion more could be re-written along the lines York proposes—“It wasn’t a brandy hangover, it was a human hangover”—but, whatever else such re-writes might do, they won’t increase the descriptive utility of the altered sentences.

Indeed, people complain about the phrase ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ precisely because that formulation makes it hard to talk about technology. People kill people, but they do a lot more of it when given handguns, just as people testify to atrocities by the state, but they do it better when they have phones with cameras in them, and better still when TV networks broadcast those images using satellites instead of terrestrial antennae.

You don’t have to go all the way to Actor-Network Theory or What Technology Wants to see that if we’re going to talk about what newer media tools may have made possible during the recent uprisings, that’s going to involve talking about weblogs and camera-phones the way we talk about knives and ships. And, following Burke and Briggs, it will be difficult, in that conversation, to avoid phrases like ‘the logic of camera-phones.’

What puzzles me is why we should want to avoid those phrases in the first place. What is it about communications tools that seems to arouse more anxiety about our usual, agency-encapsulating shorthand than other kinds of technologies?

{ 126 comments }

1

Tom 10.10.11 at 10:56 am

Well, the big difference is that they’re communications tools. They enable human agency by enabling speech, not action.

Though when we ride a ferry we say ‘the boat carried us across the channel’, when we listen to speech transmitted by phone we do not say ‘the phone told me Michael’s latest gossip,’ or even ‘the phone transmitted Michael’s latest gossip’ – the agency remains with Michael in phrases such as ‘Michael told me his latest gossip over the phone.’ The sense in which we refer to the phone remains instrumental.

This may be because attributing speech to an object is difficult to distinguish from attributing humanity, or personifying it.

Further to that, I’d point out that there’s a fundamental ambiguity between the use of Twitter to mean Twitter, the California-based technology company, and Twitter, the communications medium (likewise of course with Facebook). So describing the Arab Spring as a ‘Twitter Revolution’ is perhaps not unlike referring to a ‘CIA coup’ by some lights – it suggests that Twitter, the company was somehow the instigator of political change in the Middle East.

2

J. Otto Pohl 10.10.11 at 11:11 am

It is pretty obvious that neither twitter nor guns make revolutions. People make revolutions. It also clear that the role of communications technology in popular demonstrations has been vastly overblown by many American pundits since at least 1989 when faxes were used for this purpose in places like Beijing. Attributing the the few successful overthrows of various dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and probably soon Libya to twitter is like attributing the success of the PAIGC, MPLA, and FRELIMO in Africa in the 1970s to the AK. Yes, the rifle was helpful, but making it the center point of analysis would be stupid.

3

Andrew Fisher 10.10.11 at 11:23 am

The revolution in military affairs reference is an apt one. The debate on longbows at Agincourt or panzers in the Ardennes may not dishonour the dead, but it wastes the time of the living because it is mostly pretty lousy history.

4

Philippa 10.10.11 at 1:13 pm

Tom – well put. Your two middle paragraphs, in particular, are the best explanation of that particular point that I’ve yet seen.

It’s an interesting point, this question of agency and technology. I’d suggest that we may be especially sensitive in this field because we’re so often countering the misperception that Arabs (or Muslims) don’t value democracy or have these kinds of political demands. The “Facebook revolution” claims, especially early on, sometimes seemed to imply that this wasn’t about Arab demands, but about the beneficial effects of (American-invented) technological tools. Yet another way for the US to “save the day” for a backward people, don’t you know.

5

Joshua W. Burton 10.10.11 at 1:32 pm

Our mental imagery is still playing catch-up with Moore’s Law, and everyone feels a bit of discomfort about it. Consider the (often comical) modern usage of the word “technology” to mean “things with lithium batteries.” A flight attendant told me just last week that all technology had to be turned off until we reached an altitude of 10,000 feet.

When metonymy grants agency to a ship, we know roughly where the image will float and where it’s going to hit the rocks. With our new digital overlords, we’re never quite sure how much agency we will ultimately get for the asking, so we are instinctively more reticent.

6

Geoffrey 10.10.11 at 1:33 pm

The previous three comments are fascinating, continuing the trend about which Clay Shirky is writing. For some reason, it’s OK to write shorthand comments on some tools but not others? For some reason it’s OK to speculate on the role advancement in technology plays in some areas of human social development – war-making, general literacy – but not others?

I have found the whole “debate” about the role of social media in recent social movements to be interesting, not least because too many people seem unwilling to grant that better tools sometimes make the job of organizing social protest easier. That’s the purpose of tools, to do make doing stuff easier. Even more than the fax machine in 1989, or the web log in 2006, Facebook and Twitter allowed folks directly involved to find out where to go, what to do, and to whom to answer much more quickly. They also allowed people looking on from outside to get real-time reports – not always reliable to be sure, but helpful nonetheless – on events as they unfolded. While I did not “participate” in the Arab Spring, I followed very closely on Twitter and was watching AJE when Hosni Mubarak resigned, and shall never forget the roar from the crowd in Tahrir Square when the announcement was broadcast. In 1989, I, like the rest of America, had to wait for the evening news to watch Tom Brokaw do a standup in front of the Berlin Wall, crowded with people on top of it, jumping over it, to get information on what was happening.

Better tools, better information, better connectedness – these are all general social goods. These weren’t “Twitter Revolutions”. They were, however, revolutions that used the latest tools effectively. Nothing wrong with affirming that

7

ajay 10.10.11 at 1:39 pm

when we listen to speech transmitted by phone we do not say ‘the phone told me Michael’s latest gossip,’ or even ‘the phone transmitted Michael’s latest gossip’ – the agency remains with Michael in phrases such as ‘Michael told me his latest gossip over the phone.’

On the other hand, we do say things like “I learned about the riots from the TV” – we don’t say “I learned about the riots from Bob Smith, the local news reporter, who told me over the TV”.

Attributing the the few successful overthrows of various dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and probably soon Libya to twitter is like attributing the success of the PAIGC, MPLA, and FRELIMO in Africa in the 1970s to the AK.

Frelimo itself thought that the AK was central to their victory, which is why they put it on the flag!

8

Substance McGravitas 10.10.11 at 1:40 pm

I’d point out that there’s a fundamental ambiguity between the use of Twitter to mean Twitter, the California-based technology company, and Twitter, the communications medium (likewise of course with Facebook). So describing the Arab Spring as a ‘Twitter Revolution’ is perhaps not unlike referring to a ‘CIA coup’ by some lights – it suggests that Twitter, the company was somehow the instigator of political change in the Middle East.

It can also feel like a vulgar form of advertising.

9

ajay 10.10.11 at 1:43 pm

I wonder, too, whether part of this may be a natural dislike of admitting the importance of something one doesn’t really understand. “I understand, or think I understand, economics and people, therefore I am happy explaining this major event in terms of economics and people. I don’t really understand longbows or Panzers or Twitter feeds, and I look down on people who do understand them as weirdos, so I am not very happy with explanations for major events that centre around longbows or Panzers or Twitter feeds.”

10

J. Otto Pohl 10.10.11 at 2:02 pm

Well Ajay I guess the machete was essential to the MPLA victory because they put it on their flag. The model of both the Angolan and Mozabican flags being the Soviet flag. I do not think that the Bolshevik victory had much to do with either the military use of the hammer or the military use of the sickle. So the fact that FRELIMO put an AK crossed with a hoe does not say anything about the importance of that particular weapon. Was the hoe also central to their victory over the Portuguese? It is a symbolic metaphor for an alliance of guerrillas (the AK) and farmers (the hoe). Just as Angola uses the machete represent farmers and the cog wheel to represent workers or the USSR the sickle and hammer for the same. East Germany’s flag had a compass on it. I am quite sure that the DDR did not come to power as a result of Germans using the compass to defeat the Nazis.

I did not say that the AK did not help. Only that I think the collapse of the government in Portugal, the complete isolation of Portugal’s Rhodesian and South African allies, the ability of organizations like FRELIMO to recruit and train fighters are all more important than the automatization of the rifle. After all other revolutions managed to succeed against far more powerful adversaries than tiny Portugal without the benefit of the AK, using less advanced rifles and carbines. Advanced weapons are nice, but all of Africa was afloat with this particular rifle during the 1970s and armed revolutions were only successful against Portugal and Rhodesia. Other factors are more important.

11

P O'Neill 10.10.11 at 2:03 pm

I was in Tunisia last week.

I spoke to actual Tunisians.

If you put to them the straw man hypothesis “Twitter/Facebook caused the revolution,” you get no takers.

If you get into a more extended discussion you learn that social media had been undermining the government for at least 3 years, as people discussed news events in Tunisia (and Algeria) that they knew about through social contacts propagated electronically but which were ignored in official — and foreign — media. Even things like Ben Ali’s visibly worsening health in official photographs — unacknowledged in the accompanying reports — were undermining the official line.

The tools mattered, and they were being used for a while before they took effect.

12

Rich Puchalsky 10.10.11 at 2:04 pm

” if you claim (as seems to be plausible enough to discuss) that weblogs were useful to the Kefeya movement in Egypt in ways that no other tool could replicate”

But is the claim true or not? That’s the central point that people are expressing doubt about when they don’t want to call it a Twitter Revolution. Did the unrest come first, and then people went out to use whatever communications technology they had to coordinate it? Then they might have done pretty much the same thing if they’d used word of mouth. More slowly, perhaps, but not different in any essential way. To show otherwise, you have to come up with some specific protest tactics that were both important and couldn’t have been done without Twitter and other similar Web tools.

The question is the same one argued about the British riots here — which no one calls the Twitter riots. People are interested in associating technology that they think is good with social events that they think are good.

13

Ray 10.10.11 at 2:47 pm

I think Geoffrey (unintentionally) nails it – they were Twitter revolutions because you could follow them on Twitter and feel like you were doing something.

14

gman 10.10.11 at 2:51 pm

It seems odd that here in the US the occupy wall street protests just can’t seem to be found to “trend” on Twitter..the same for the Troy Davis execution. Yahoo had a “glitch” that prevented email going out related to OWS organizing.

These “tools” that worked for the Arab spring WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO WORK in the US.

15

MarkUp 10.10.11 at 3:01 pm

#7
On the other hand, we do say things like “I learned about the riots from the TV” – we don’t say “I learned about the riots from Bob Smith, the local news reporter, who told me over the TV”.

“I learned about the riots from the HD BRAVIA™”
“I learned about the riots from the iPhone™”

16

ajay 10.10.11 at 3:14 pm

Well Ajay I guess the machete was essential to the MPLA victory because they put it on their flag.

There is no machete on the flag of the MPLA. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bandeira_do_MPLA.svg
Also, 9 to 10.

12: I think there’s a point at which “More slowly, perhaps, but not different in any essential way” loses meaning. So the argument is that Twitter doesn’t do anything that word of mouth can’t do more slowly; maybe so, but surely a big enough difference in speed is itself an essential difference. I mean, telephones don’t do anything that foot couriers couldn’t do more slowly, but surely there’s an essential difference there?

17

J. Otto Pohl 10.10.11 at 3:27 pm

Ajay you are being a pedantic ass. The flag of Angola has a machete on it. The ruling party of Angola at the time the flag was designed was the MPLA. The MPLA put the machete on the flag of Angola. So was the machete the most important factor in gaining Angolan independence?

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Angola

18

tomslee 10.10.11 at 3:34 pm

The French agree with Substance #8 that referring to Twitter and Facebook on TV is a form of advertising, and I agree with others that the use of “Twitter revolution” does have issues that “social media revolution” would not.

Another part of the issue is the one Rich #12 brings up, but it’s not just whether the tools were useful in this case (as P O’Neil #11 makes clear they were); naming the revolution after them does suggest they were uniquely, unambiguously, and unavoidably central to the revolution in the way that nothing else was. Which some of us do wonder about.

Finally, I do agree there is an aspect of the naming debate that is simply our reluctance to adopt new terms. I personally hate the use of “impact” as a verb but have no problem buttering my toast. So much for consistency.

19

Clay Shirky 10.10.11 at 3:43 pm

Several people have made good replies to points I’m not arguing, especially in reference to the “Itter-Tway Evolution-Ray”, so I’ll try to clarify my question here.

I do not like, and do not use, the phrase “X Revolution”, where X is either the description of a technology or the name of an internet company in California. In fact, I don’t even like the word revolution, and don’t use it in this post outside of quote marks. So I am not surprised, as P O’Neill notes at #11, that there are no takers for such a straw man label in Tunis, and nor should there be.

Nor am I puzzled as to why people would disagree about the relative importance of camera-phones or social-graph distribution in the current uprisings — with even the role of tanks in the initial German victories in WWII still in dispute, I don’t expect this question ever to be settled.

Furthermore, as Danny Kahneman is fond of noting, nothing is ever as important as it seems when you are thinking about it, which means that scholarship is a structured form of overstating the case, whatever case you are arguing. (This is the engine driving all those “Mustard! How A Tiny Seed Made a Big Difference” books of the last 20 years.)

But, by agreeing that calling things X Revolutions is pointless, and accepting that there is an argument to be had about mechanisms and effects of media in the current crop of uprisings, protests and occupations, I mean to set those issues aside, in order to ask the much narrower question of this post:

Among the initially quoted writers there is no skepticism about the utility of social media in political action. At the same time, none of them are making X Revolution-style claims. To give this group a name, they are ‘media effect’ moderates, as I take, say Geoffrey and P O’Neill to be (at least in this thread.)

Given that, why do they treat a standard linguistic formulation — “the knife cuts the bread” — as off-limits and even dishonorable when used for these tools — “Facebook connects the protesters”?

Tom suggests two reasons: “They enable human agency by enabling speech, not action” and “This may be because attributing speech to an object is difficult to distinguish from attributing humanity, or personifying it.”

I’m not sure I buy the first reason, as I think the Anglo-Saxon distinction between speech and action is one of those legal doctrines that don’t often translate into lived experience. The second one is more interesting, because it suggests a kind of litmus test — we are more comfortable attributing agency to things that feel less human than those that feel more human.

So between a knife that cuts the bread, a television that tells us there were 35 deaths in Bahrain (per Ajay’s example), and a phone that tells us we’re invited to a party, the first phrase sounds unobjectionable and the last one sounds weird.

This seems plausible for direct, person-to-person contact — no one would ever say “The phone broke up with me” when getting a Dear John text. It still leaves the middle ground these tools occupy between TV and the telephone less well specified (though this could be in relation to Joshua and Ajay’s points about novelty.)

And here, with group effects, I still have my question. What is it about the two phrases “The brandy made the revelers drunk” and “Facebook connected the protesters” seem so different, even when we’re not describing individual contacts but overall effects.

Put another way, no one would have any trouble understanding or accepting a phrase like ‘the logic of alcohol’, but many people would resist a phrase like ‘the logic of camera-phones’, even though both phrases assume that tools do particular things, and that humans put those particular things to predictable uses.

20

Alex 10.10.11 at 3:45 pm

Rich at 12 misses that they were described as the BlackBerry Messenger riots.

21

elm 10.10.11 at 4:03 pm

Clay @19

Given that, why do they treat a standard linguistic formulation—“the knife cuts the bread”—as off-limits and even dishonorable when used for these tools—“Facebook connects the protesters”?

And here, with group effects, I still have my question. What is it about the two phrases “The brandy made the revelers drunk” and “Facebook connected the protesters” seem so different, even when we’re not describing individual contacts but overall effects.

I think that MarkUp @15 covers an important element of these objections.

Try “The Kobel made the revelers drunk” or “the Ginsu cuts the bread”.

Another is that communications media operate in two major modes. One is to get 0ut of the way and connect people, the other is to get in the way such that the medium fundamentally alters the message (they bear the stench/weight of the editor’s authority).

End-user-controlled media like the telephone, text messages, email, or relatively-free blog comment sections belong to the former category. Television, newspapers, and other establishment media belong are the latter. Facebook and Twitter resemble the former at the moment — they certainly present themselves that way — but ultimately they are brands and centrally-controlled.

22

Watson Ladd 10.10.11 at 4:18 pm

I think part of what is going on is the question of what we want explanations to do. An explanation of Agincourt that explains “why did the British, and not the French win?” is likely to be satisfactorily rooted in Welsh longbowmen. But an explanation that explains “why did the French and British decide to fight here?” is going to be involved with tactics and history, and probably not have that much to do with weapons.

The people concerned with technological determinism are worried that explanations centered around “how did the protests grow to topple governments?” might overestimate the impact of technology and ignore the conditions responsible for these protests being possible in the first place.

23

Kaveh 10.10.11 at 4:21 pm

As Philippa @4 noted, it’s not about technologies vs people getting credit, it’s about particular people not getting credit, people who are disdained and marginalized in a lot of American public discourse. I mean, forget Twitter and facebook, according to the Moustache of Understanding, among the Top Ten Under-Reported Reasons for the Arab Spring were “the Obama factor” and the Beijing olympics. This tendency makes the whole issue of discomfort over attributing agency to machines much more urgent than it otherwise would be, and leads to these exaggerated claims about the unimportance of social media.

In fact, I would go further and say that anxiety over attributing agency to communications technology is purely a second-order issue here, because (especially) people who are politically active in a more international context are aware of the role public perceptions can play in enabling or restraining the actions of governments and international media, all of which can have a very real impact on how the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes behave.

24

Jim Harrison 10.10.11 at 4:39 pm

Technology without people, indeed things without people, don’t do anything at all; but people without their things are also inert. Since human agency is something that always and everywhere occurs in a made world, it is rather artificial to separate the tool users and the tools and explain everything as emanating from the collective will. Insisting that people deserve all the credit strikes me as a metaphysical error, a sort of Neoplatonic sociology.

25

Lemuel Pitkin 10.10.11 at 4:40 pm

Wow, this is one really impressive performance in goalpost moving.

All sorts of claims have been made that social media played a central, causal role in the Arab spring. These are importnat arguments, but they’re open to criticism. And now here comes Shirky. Does he argue for the importance of the tools of social media in Tunisia, Egypt, etc., or in any concrete social or political event? No, he argues that it is possible, in principle, for some tools to play some role in some event. That claim’s been weakened so much, it’s practically homeopathic.

When someone says “Social media didn’t oust the Tunisian president” they’re not making some banal undergraduate point about whether tools can be said to do something. They’re saying that, contrary to the breathless early accounts of people like Shirky, this particular tool didn’t do this particular thing. Debating that question would be oh about infinitely more interesting than word games about agency.

26

Lemuel Pitkin 10.10.11 at 4:40 pm

(And, what Kaveh said.)

27

Tom 10.10.11 at 5:12 pm

Clay @ 19

Thanks – you’ve articulated what I was trying to get at in #1, when I spoke about “attributing humanity to objects by describing them as agents of speech”, far better than I did.

I think you’re also correct to question the distinction I lazily drew between speech and action. The proper distinction is between those acts that confer humanity to the agent, and those that don’t – speech acts by our intuition and by our intellectual traditions belong to the former category.

Returning to your question, though – what is different about the two phrases “The brandy made the revelers drunk” and “Facebook connected the protesters”?

I’d argue that among the range of communication environments available online, social media applications like Facebook and Twitter have few particular traits that enable relatively more effective political organisation.

It’s therefore the particularity of the references made in the media to these prominent brands of otherwise unexceptional internet technology that make me uncomfortable. (Substance @ 8, and MarkUp @ 15 have got a bead on this effect – these phrases have the feel of product placement, advertisement.)

“Among the initially quoted writers there is no skepticism about the utility of social media in political action.”

I’m unskeptical about the impact of the internet in general on political action. It is being felt more and more as internet access and literacy become more ubiquitous. Facebook and Twitter on the other hand will be dead in their present form within ten, if not five years.

28

Salient 10.10.11 at 5:14 pm

I guess we could say “telephones connected the chefs” or “letters kept the friends in touch” rather than “the chefs kept contact by telephone” or “the friends corresponded by letter,” but I’m not convinced that the former is the existing normal from which we are breaking when we say “the protestors coordinated via Twitter” or “the insurgents shared reconnaissance on Facebook.”

29

Ebenezer Scrooge 10.10.11 at 5:21 pm

“What is it about communications tools that seems to arouse more anxiety about our usual, agency-encapsulating shorthand than other kinds of technologies?”

I dunno. Maybe a recent history of extreme salesmanship? It is hard to hard to believe a claim that–say–snake oil is a decent lubricant, after having heard for the past 20 years that snake oil will cure all that ails you. I don’t know if snake oil is a decent lubricant or indeed even exists, but there sure have been a lot of snake oil claims about the social impact of telecommunications technologies.

If you want to be right most of the time, you probably want to use the heuristic that all claims about the impact of telecommunications technologies are bullshit. Of course, telecommunications technologies are socially transformative, even if we generally don’t know how they will transform us. If you want to make a few billion dollars, take the 99% chance of being wrong, and stake your claim.

30

Salient 10.10.11 at 5:22 pm

“Chalk spraypaint wall graffiti conveyed Salient’s dissatisfaction with CIA drone assassinations”

“The blog comment section delivered the CT readers’ counterexamples to Clay Shirky”

:)

31

Lemuel Pitkin 10.10.11 at 5:23 pm

Incidentally, if anyone clicks through on Shirky’s links, they want find a trace of the strawman he’s grappling with. Instead, they’ll find statements like this (from York)

“By all Tunisian accounts, WikiLeaks had little–if anything–to do with the protests; rather, the protests were spurred by unemployment and economic woes. “

That’s a claim that WikiLeaks didn’t matter, not that it couldn’t matter.

Or this, from Neumann:

“Arab media outlets were broadcasting striking images from Tunisia into millions of homes long before Western media found the air time.”

Obviously, Neumann isn’t saying that media can’t be a subject — Arab media is the subject of that sentence! He’s just saying that Shirky et al. have got the wrong ones. The question that matters is the relative importance of online social media vs. other forms of media. Shirky evidently knows he’s committed himself to a losing position in the real debate, or he wouldn’t have made up this ridiculous substitute.

32

Clay Shirky 10.10.11 at 5:31 pm

Ajay #16 posts for me. The entire class of argument that “Technology X can’t have affected Event Y because there were instances of Y prior to the invention of X” seem to me to suggest that technology never changes society. If movable type was just an insomniac scribe, the telegraph just fast post, and the transistor just a small vacuum tube, we would expect to see, after the spread of those inventions, moderate improvements along the dimensions of use of the previous tool.

This is not in fact what we see. This is one of the many places where the entirely unhelpful distinction between a differences in degree and kind is entirely unhelpful. Other variables held in place, fast things are different than slow ones, distributed different than centralized, cheap different than expensive, and abundant different than scarce. This makes the analysis tricker, of course, because you can’t check a box that says ‘same’ or different’; instead, you have to ask “How big was the difference created by speed, or cost, or access?”

Lemuel #25, I can’t tell if you’ve happened to misread the question, or if you intentionally have, but on the chance that it’s A, let me re-state it:

I’m not asking whether social media ousted Ben Ali. I’ve never made that claim, breathless or breathful, and nor would I. And, on the other side, I am not asking whether those tools were inert. I obviously think they were useful, and so do all the writers I quoted.

What I am asking, here and not on my own blog because I think CT readers will have some intuition about the answer, is precisely why issues of agency seem to arouse anxiety in just the group I have described, observers not making “X Revolution” claims, but convinced that these tools mattered? Call it a word game if you like, but it seems obvious to me that there are different ways of talking about different tools with respect to agency, and it is just those differences I am thinking about right now.

Jim #24 also posts for me.

Kaveh, elm, Watson. Good points all, still digesting, thanks.

Tom #27, one thing I’ve learned from this thread is that, even a post that does not mention any Leading Brand Tools™, the issues of both advertising and neo-neo-colonialism bring those same Leading Brands to the fore (as also noted by Substance #8, and MarkUp #15.) This seems to doom us to having to continually talk about those claims, even if, as tomslee suggests, questions about social media have a better descriptive purchase on the conversation in question, and even in a forum like this one, where no participant is making that claim.

33

Lemuel Pitkin 10.10.11 at 5:39 pm

precisely why issues of agency seem to arouse anxiety in just the group I have described

I deny that you have provided any evidence for such an anxiety. Read in context, a statement like “Is this a social media revolution? Absolutely not” has nothing to do with the general reluctance to ascribe agency to tools, and is instead a claim about the relative importance of social media in these particular events.

None of these writers are saying tools can’t make things happen. They’re saying these tools played a secondary role in making these things happen. You’re arguing with a strawman.

34

Chris Williams 10.10.11 at 5:41 pm

Think about feedback loops: the state’s various feedback loops, and those of the people. If you have a situation in which the people’s loop’s moving faster than the state’s, that state had better have legitimacy, or bad things will happen to it. Doesn’t matter how fast the loops are: it’s about their relative speed.

35

Bruce Baugh 10.10.11 at 5:49 pm

Clay seems fond of diagnosing anxiety. I mean this as a serious observation. Here we have anxiety among those who do not regard something as important as Clay thinks it is, or important in a different way. Last year, when people in a variety of marginalized groups to which Clay does not belong regarded something – specifically, Amazon’s delisting of a bunch of books of particular sorts, and subsequent bumbles and general disinterest in anything like accountability or even explanation – as more important than he did, or important in a different way, they were anxious, too. Other examples turn up as well. If Clay were right in each case, then we’d say that he is both fascinated by anxiety and refreshingly free from it. If, on the other hand, he’s missing some things, we might find projection, or repetition of a particular kind of condescension.

36

Tom 10.10.11 at 5:52 pm

“The question that matters is the relative importance of online social media vs. other forms of media.”

But this question doesn’t make sense.

Long form, fact-checked and edited ‘ traditional media’ articles and broadcasts, as well as expert blogs etc., are essential to social media. If it’s a thing at all, ‘social media’ consists in large part of user dialogues motivated by reference to these sources.

Recognising this parasitism, technology platforms like Twitter support, track (and will later monetise the statistical analysis of) these references embedded in statements by users.

37

Rich Puchalsky 10.10.11 at 5:54 pm

“I mean, telephones don’t do anything that foot couriers couldn’t do more slowly, but surely there’s an essential difference there?”

Clay Shirky writes that a jay @16 writes for him, so yes, I think it’s worth looking more closely at this difference. One difference between telephones and foot couriers is that in a contemporary society everyone can have a telephone, but only a few relatively wealthy people can afford to hire a foot courier. The difference between Web social media and word of mouth is supposed to be speed. But if we take the point at comment 11 that the real impact was that the regime was discredited for years beforehand, does speed matter? Word of mouth and Twitter share an essential similarity that they are both available almost universally. People will certainly use a fast tool if it’s available, but could just as well have used a slower, universally available one if it wasn’t.

So the issues of agency don’t “arouse anxiety” about people who aren’t convinced that the tools mattered, they arouse the suspicion that poor people are being devalued by enthusiasts for those tools.

38

Tom 10.10.11 at 6:00 pm

Or that it’s the increasingly universal availability of internet communication in its most general form that is being devalued in favour of media-fuelled blather about “game changing, world flattening” technology.

39

Lemuel Pitkin 10.10.11 at 6:05 pm

Long form, fact-checked and edited ’ traditional media’ articles and broadcasts, as well as expert blogs etc., are essential to social media.

You really think that the fact that A is essential to B, means we can’t assess the relative importance of A and B in any particular case? Really?

Electricity is essential to clock radios. Nonetheless, I find it perfectly sensible to say that electricity is more important clock radios.

40

Substance McGravitas 10.10.11 at 6:09 pm

I am not a speaker of the language, but when I do searches in Arabic for various things there is a whole lot more out there than Twitter and Facebook. It is fun to think that by using the branded™ tools we know and love that we might have some agency in Important World Events. It’s a pathway into mythology.

41

Clay Shirky 10.10.11 at 6:11 pm

Lemuel, we crossed in the mail, at #s 31 and 32.

You seem to want me to be making different claims, or asking different questions, than the one I’m asking here. I’m sorry you don’t find this particular argument sufficiently contemptible for your taste, but I assure you, it’s not a substitute for the larger questions, but a precursor.

I also find it odd that you quote Neumann and York, but use only vague references to my work. I’ve been thinking out loud about the internet for almost 20 years now; surely if you want to characterize my losing position, you could at least explain what you think it is? Or provide a link to the relevant work?

As to your quotes, and along with York, I haven’t and wouldn’t advance the claim that Wikileaks had much to do with the uprisings. In that same post, however, you will also find her saying this:

“Now, I’m not about to discount social media’s relationship to the Tunisian uprising. For one, it most certainly played a huge role in getting videos, photos, and news out to the world–and not just to a public audience, but to news organizations as well. Al Jazeera–which had some of the best coverage of Tunisia over the past few weeks–relied heavily on sources gleaned from social networks for much of its print work, as did other organizations. Tunisian blogs and news sources–such as Nawaat and SBZ News–filled in the gaps left by the mainstream media’s shoddy reporting of the events. And speaking from personal experience, I was able to connect a lot of Tunisians–some of whom I’ve never met in real life–with journalists because of our connections on Facebook and Twitter.”

And Neumann says “Did social media have an effect on events in Tunisia? Undoubtedly, yes.”

Let me adopt these sentiments. Do you agree or disagree? Are you, unlike York (who you quote approvingly elsewhere) about to discount social media’s relationship to the Tunisian uprising? Do you disagree with Neumann’s analysis that social media ‘undoubtedly’ had an effect on events in Tunisia?

42

actio 10.10.11 at 6:11 pm

I share Shirky’s impression that there is a particular sentiment in need of explanation. (If there isn’t, as Lemuel Pitkens now argues, then we could move one floor up and ask why so many have the impression that there is. But let’s not go there!)

I count four explanatory candidates so far (SMT = social media technology):

1. SMT enable human agency by enabling speech, not action
2. SMT feels more personal/human and we’re less comfortable to attribute agency to such things
3. SMT is often strongly tied to brand names
4. SMT is often owned by private corporations in western countries

1-4 seem compatible.

43

Lemuel Pitkin 10.10.11 at 6:18 pm

I find in all three pieces a clear and sensible position that social media were important in, but not as central as they have been made out to be. I do not find in any of them any hint of an objection in principle to ascribing agencies to these or other tools.

I see a nuanced position: social media, but other stuff mattered more. I don’t see any anxiety, and you haven’t provided any evidence for it.

44

Lemuel Pitkin 10.10.11 at 6:20 pm

social media mattered, but…

45

actio 10.10.11 at 6:20 pm

Some of the paradigm examplex used so far (knife , boat, tank) are tools easily understood as controlled by one individual or a small set of individuals.

When it comes to twitter, facebook and other SMT many instead tend to think in terms of hive minds, virulent processes and amplification.

46

Clay Shirky 10.10.11 at 6:22 pm

And, following up re: my read of anxiety, as with Bruce #35, it is certainly an interpretive issue. If you don’t read that in those posts, then we differ.

However, the basic observation is unchanged if stated as a flat observation about writing — the writers both attribute importance to social media tools and deny certain ways of discussing that importance which are perfectly ordinary when discussing other sorts of tools.

From this conversation, I’m pretty convinced that this is largely due to Actio #42’s Items 3 and 4.

47

bigcitylib 10.10.11 at 6:25 pm

Mr. Shirky wrote:

“Given that, why do they treat a standard linguistic formulation—“the knife cuts the bread”—as off-limits and even dishonorable when used for these tools—“Facebook connects the protesters”?”

My own hesitation, with regards to Libya specifically, has to do with the role social media played, vs. the roles tanks and guns have played, in the unfolding events. You may have noticed that media coverage of the last several months, when the actual killing began, hasn’t mentioned Facebook/Twitter nearly as much as coverage of the “revolution’s” launch back around the beginning of the year. This will remain the case I think until twitter gives you the ability to email somebody a rocket launcher.

48

Lemuel Pitkin 10.10.11 at 6:29 pm

deny certain ways of discussing that importance

No they don’t. They just don’t think it was as important as you do.

49

km 10.10.11 at 6:36 pm

To add a bit to Lemuel Pitkins’ point about shifting the goal post, the fact that the English language happens to handle both animate subjects (“a person”) and non-animate subject (“a knife”) as grammatical agents is not a profound insight into the nature of social action. It’s just the way English works. Plenty of languages (e.g. those with ergative-absolutive systems) mark agency differently, and plenty treat animacy differently (like Navajo, where “humans” and “animals” take different verb forms). Do French speakers think tables are “female” because the word has feminine grammatical gender? The kind of agency you’re describing, like gender (and mood, and tense, and number, and case), is a grammatical category, and while grammatical categories often align (though usually uncomfortably) with social categories, they are not, in fact, the same thing.

The point is that you’re essentially using a point about *grammar* –and the grammar of one language–to argue a point about deeper foundations of human agency. That our experience of the world matches the ways our grammar helps us describes it says more about how we relate to language than about the reality of human agency.

50

Rich Puchalsky 10.10.11 at 6:39 pm

If we’re talking about observations about writing, then there are a lot of reasons to be deeply skeptical about techno-optimism that don’t have anything to do with brand names and private corporations.

Take Corey Doctorow’s novel Little Brother as a case study. As I go into in excessive detail here, it’s a novel ostensibly about social media and encrypted Linux and techno-coolness. But really that turns out to make no difference. The novel turns out to hinge on an old-style media scandal about the last-minute-averted waterboarding of a white middle-class kid. The reluctance to attribute agency that Clay Shirky goes on about seems to me to be mainly due to a perception that again, we’d rather talk about social media, branded or not, than talk about the people who might have done what they did without it.

51

Lemuel Pitkin 10.10.11 at 6:42 pm

why do they treat a standard linguistic formulation—“the knife cuts the bread”—as off-limits and even dishonorable when used for these tools—“Facebook connects the protesters”?

I need to leave this thread before I burst a blood vessel, but one more time:

No one does that.

Here, from the first freaking paragraph of one of Shirky’s examples: “The likes of Facebook and twitter really help to accelerate the protests by spreading the news that would otherwise have taken a long time to spread. These tools empower people…” Obviously Achalla Venu doesn’t think these sorts of phrases are off-limits, he uses them himself!

If Shirky or anyone else bothered reading the piece, they’d see that it says nothing about the inherent legitimacy of ascribing a political role to social media, but instead raises doubts about whether the impact will always be progressive, and concludes that twitter etc. may be a “powerful accelerant. But in the end, a successful revolution still requires people to go into the streets and risk their lives.” Does Shirky or anyone else want to disagree with that?

Of course not. So instead of engaging with any of the actual arguments we get this absurd debate over an imaginary anxiety.

52

grackle 10.10.11 at 7:39 pm

I can’t understand this post in any way that that is anything other than a form of self-promotion-i.e. for example comment #41I also find it odd that you quote Neumann and York, but use only vague references to my work. .

After admitting that the writers you quote admit the agency of social media in the various tumultuous events, you quibble about the agency admitted. Is there any there there?It seems as though there is no agency you will accept except one that only you can reveal. What am I missing? As it is, it seems like a question of little distinction and hence, little interest other than semantics.

53

Tom 10.10.11 at 7:42 pm

@Lemuel

You really think that the fact that A is essential to B, means we can’t assess the relative importance of A and B in any particular case? Really?

You really think that every unspecific objection to a specific proposition implies an absolute contradiction of all possible propositions in a whole class that happens to contain the original? Really?

Come on :-p

Traditional media and social media are highly interdependent. High value media products from the former, along with primary documents, drive dialogue on the latter. Related dialogue on the latter drives advertising revenue to the former.

The relationship between the two is complex and in light of that complexity, I’d like to see what standard you would propose to assess their relative importance. To me it might be easier and more fruitful to abandon that, and instead look at the impact of the media as a whole on political change.

54

Meredith 10.10.11 at 7:49 pm

Others here have pointed to good reasons for Neumann et al. to feel nervous about the breathless MSM blather about “Twitter revolutions.” That nervousness has nothing to do with concerns about “making ontological commitments to talking ships or enchanted knives.”
But I’m not ready to dismiss such ontological commitments — or at least, I’m ready to take seriously that people have an inkling that our tools do use us and that new tools therefore make us nervous because we have no idea where they will finally lead us. If I was a tool and die maker twenty or thirty years ago, new computerization and laser technologies made me nervous. If I started out as an academic some fifty years ago, the advent of word processing and then email made me nervous. Not just because of new skills to learn but because everything about my relationship to a huge part of my world was going to change, maybe for the better in some ways, but maybe not in others (and maybe not for the better at all).

(Btw. Not all that long ago in the span of homo sapiens’ history, there were no knives. We lived a lot differently then. We were different beings then, period. Sharp tools, along with secure containers and weaving, are more important than the wheel for human history, as it happens.)

Thing is about new communication technologies, especially those that vast numbers can and will avail themselves of: everyone (not just, say, the cabinet maker using a new kind of rasp) is going to be affected, their lives changed. That makes these communication technologies different.

But if our tools do use us and we sort of know it, that doesn’t mean they are absolutely determinative. We still use them, too. I’m all for insisting on our own agency at every chance we get, whether it’s to counter corporate interests trying to persuade us of the inevitability of our need to buy their new products or corporate journalism conveniently overlooking the role of years of quiet political networking going on in places like Tunisia. Hand and knife working together.

55

Salient 10.10.11 at 7:56 pm

“RSS update informed me that I may as well not have spoken up”

56

geo 10.10.11 at 7:58 pm

LP @ 51: this absurd debate over an imaginary anxiety

What is this debate actually about? What is the anxiety Clay is diagnosing? As far as I can tell from the OP, it’s something like this: “people get (really) worked up about those claims, on the grounds that anyone talking about whether technology made an important difference during the uprisings must also be making the hidden claim that technology caused those uprisings.”

Why would people who welcomed the uprisings angrily reject claims that “technology caused those uprisings”? For that matter, what would it mean to say that “technology caused those uprisings”? On its face, the claim is closer to meaningless than false. Obviously people’s hunger for freedom and dignity caused the uprisings. Shirky is not so silly as to deny that. And obviously those people found SM technology very useful. None of Shirky’s critics are so silly as to deny that.

So what’s it all about, as Lemuel rightly asks? If Clay were a little more reflective, he might have taken note of the fact that many people who understand SMT as well as he does and appreciate it just as much, nevertheless have a well-founded anxiety about the power it places in the hands of Google, Facebook, et al, and their advertisers, to 1) monopolize (or oligopolize) both individual and public attention — each of which is, contrary to libertarian presuppositions, both finite and fragile; and 2) subtly but inevitably produce a more superficial, distractable, plastic, and less autonomous character structure and mental set, both individually and culturally. People who believe this may well be concerned — with much justification — when people (like Shirky?) who don’t believe it sing paeans to the beneficial effects of the technology, not because they don’t believe in the beneficial effects, but because they find the paeans a little undiscriminating.

It’s depressingly like, say, praising Cuba’s health care system. Unless one is more careful than Clay is above (and elsewhere, is my impression), one immediately gets entangled in arguments that are really not about Cuba’s health care system but about Cuba as proof (or disproof) of the possibility of any sane alternative to capitalism.

57

Rich Puchalsky 10.10.11 at 8:08 pm

Or, you know 3) this may be a classic example of people displacing something that brown people do onto a technological system that is supposed to have really made it possible, and then wondering why anyone else seems strangely anxious about that.

58

Omega Centauri 10.10.11 at 8:08 pm

Can we go back to a fundamental question hinted at by Clay, for instance in #32. lets postulate that we can characterize a potentially revolutionary public by two variables: X, the general level of discontent with the current ruling structure, and Y the level of committment among the people to take personal risk or personal cost in an effort to change things. Now I imagine a graph of societies with various degrees of X and Y. A society occupying a point in the far upper right corner of the graph is unstable to revolution and will very soon have one. A society occupying the lower left cormer, cannot sustain a revolution. Somewhere in between, is a cirved line separating unstable pre-revolutionary societies from stable ones. The interesting social dynamics, is what is the formula for this line that separates two very distinct states. Does social media influence the position of this separator? If the answer is yes, it moves the separator significantly down and/or leftward, then that is a very significant result. Its not a question that can be answered rhetorically, or by asking the members of society X, if SM was responsible for the result they just experienced. Only detailed social epidemiology will be able to answer the question.

59

Kevin 10.10.11 at 8:10 pm

Maybe the type of agency isn’t the same. To cross the Atlantic you get on a boat; to be part of a revolution you have to do more than just log on to Twitter.

60

js. 10.10.11 at 8:19 pm

What Lemuel Pitkin said. Also what Kaveh said.

“Moustache of Understanding” is brilliant, ps.

61

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.10.11 at 8:41 pm

Some sort of group-consciousness (class, national, etc) is a prerequisite for revolution; atomization is bad. In this sense, social media have to be an important factor. Which is, I guess, just another way of saying what Omega Centauri said in 58.

62

elm 10.10.11 at 8:46 pm

On reconsideration, I like Lemuel’s position on this. There isn’t much substance to Shirke’s original post. He compares a handful of blog postings with an Amazon review & a piece of corporate P.R. from Furness Bermuda.

Taken literally, he may have discovered that rules of grammar and human expression don’t stand up to literal-minded examination. Is this an example of the Terrific Two-step of Triviality?

Back to the subject of corporate P.R., that seems to be the main force at work in labeling events as the Twitter and/or Facebook Revolution. I have no doubt that Facebook and Twitter’s P.R. people are ecstatic about the attention and positive connotations.

Oddly, we don’t hear as much about Cisco-branded Censorship in China, and if the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution turns bloody (which I hope it doesn’t), I doubt we’ll see headlines about the “Twitter Terror” or “Facebook Purges”.

63

Clay Shirky 10.10.11 at 9:07 pm

Lemuel, please don’t break a blood vessel, @51, or anywhere else for that matter.

You say “If Shirky or anyone else bothered reading the piece, they’d see that it says nothing about the inherent legitimacy of ascribing a political role to social media”

I think you are simply wrong here. All three authors do ascribe a political role to social media, which ascription I read as a vote for its legitimacy.

Since you didn’t characterize your views of York and Neumann, I’ll ask this yet again, in another way: Do you find the description of the events in Tunis as a “human revolution” to be tautological and vacuous? If so, why do you think the author included that phrase, and if not, what signal do you think it is adding? (And the same question, mutatis mutandis, for “the Tunisian people did [overthrow Ben Ali]”?)

geo #56: “And obviously those people found SM technology very useful. None of Shirky’s critics are so silly as to deny that.”

This is not true. You would be surprised at how not true this is, even at this late date.

Tom at #53 posts for me about the interdependence of social media and traditional media. Any one who creates a question of the form ‘phones vs. web sites vs. al-Jazeera, which mattered most?’ missed the ways that each of those media fed and fed on the others.

grackle #52, if you can find a non-self-referring way to say “Gee, Lemuel, you sure have a chip on your shoulder about something I said prior to this thread, but since it isn’t about using the phrase Acebook-Fay Evolution-Ray, or claiming Wikileaks caused Ben Ali to fall, or claiming social media was the most important factor in any political uprising, I can’t figure out what it is, so maybe you could help me out here with a URL?”, then I’m all ears.

Rich, I think that #57, (alongside with concern about Leading Brand advertising) is probably the right answer. As noted above, I consider phrases like “human revolution” to be the same sort of vacuous conversation stoppers as “People kill people”, but given that all of the authors of those pieces are progressives, I suspect that not having the conversation is preferable to taking on the risk you identify.

And km #49 and grackle #52, my original interest is, yes, of course, about grammar and semantics. There is a big divide between people who consider those things useful lenses, and others who don’t. I am pretty emphatically in the first camp, so I don’t think that a question that is just about grammar, or just about semantics, is unimportant.

64

elm 10.10.11 at 9:14 pm

This is not true. You would be surprised at how not true this is, even at this late date.

Examples would be most helpful to ensure we’re all on the same page.

65

MarkUp 10.10.11 at 9:43 pm

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in. And stops my mind from twittering.

[a good thing, yes?]

Sorry. Maybe what is causing my headache is, in part, the use of “social” in front of media, but perhaps I’m just an off key cricket desiring to be in a discussion on the campaigns of the leading ladies of the Right, and Newt, and Rick.

“It is the madness of folly, to expect mercy from those who have refused to do justice; and even mercy, where conquest is the object, is only a trick of war; the cunning of the fox is as murderous as the violence of the wolf.” ~ Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

As the drones popped up above I do wonder if we’ll come to find out that their curren reported ‘viral’ condition will be solved by the use of a Kleenex™ to the fingers of the keeper of the disc[s] prior to said disc’ insertion into the computer.

66

Martin Bento 10.10.11 at 9:50 pm

The problem with attributing agency to Facebook and Twitter for these sorts of things, that is not a problem for longbows or brandy is that the latter clearly do not have agency, so the attribution is unproblematically metaphorical. Facebook and Twitter, however, are not merely, and not even primarily, technologies; they are corporations, and as such do have agency. They make decisions, execute plans, and so on. Even though this ultimately occurs in the heads of those comprising the corporations, it is not clear that the same people would do the same things absent the corporate structure. Seems quite unlikely.

Twitter might like the PR of “causing” or even “enabling” the Arab Spring. Should we say “Twitter went around showing women pictures of Rep. Wiener’s dick”, the company would likely object, precisely on the grounds that they had no agency in that act. But then they did not in the Arab Spring either.

Since corporations do have agency, and are legally granted rights of personhood, attributions of agency to them should be limit to those things they deliberately do or plausibly intend, just as for humans.

67

Meredith 10.10.11 at 9:57 pm

km@49 raises important issues. Rhetorical analysis (much less linguistic) is not finally the same as political analysis. Or maybe better, choosing or framing the right/illuminating questions for rhetorical analysis in order to get at deeper political issues isn’t easy. I’m not sure I see what Clay Shirky is getting at, politically, with the question about rhetoric (or, maybe, linguistics) he has has raised but am intrigued enough to hope for clarification.

68

Salient 10.10.11 at 10:07 pm

* It seems to me like you’re wondering, why did Jeff Neumann say this was not a social media revolution? To find the answer, YOU MIGHT HAVE READ TO THE VERY NEXT SENTENCE WHERE HE CLARIFIES IT FOR YOU:

According to CNN’s Ben Wedeman (via Twitter!), gunshots are still being heard in the streets of the capital, Tunis, and a prison fire this morning claimed the lives of at least 42 people.

Oh, so… there’s bullets flying. And fires burning. And people dying. Which means it’s not just a talky-talky ‘social media’ revolution — there’s, like, actual combat conflict occurring, and actual death, and focusing entirely on “OMG THEY USE TWITTER” is eliding that loss of life. Should we elide the fact that people are shooting, burning, and dying by speaking of a ‘social media’ revolution? Absolutely not. I agree! You can accuse Jeff Neumann (and me) of suffering from “anxiety” because he chooses to emphasize this (and I choose to think him sensible for that). But I think that your attempt at designation says more about you than it does about Neumann.

* Achalla Venu uses sentence structures that resemble those you would get from literal translation from another language. For example: “Are they Twitter revolution, Facebook revolution, both or none?” The quoted blog post was written in January, and has not received any comments to date. I see no evidence that this was a particularly, ahem, salient example. And calling someone out for their language usage, when there are similarities in their writing to what one would expect of an ESL writer, is a fairly awful thing to do. I would not want someone to post my novice attempts to blog in French and point to my nonstandard and clunky word usage and call me “anxious” because of it.

* Jillian York answers your question in painstaking detail, confirming that she’s responding to a specific irritating use of language:

I answered a few questions, mostly deferring reporters to friends in Tunisia for their side of the story, and then settled in for the night…only to find rantings and ravings about Tunisia’s “Twitter revolution” and “WikiLeaks revolution” blowing up the airwaves.

I think it’s too soon to tell what the true impact of social media was on the events of the past few weeks. I also think it’s a bit irresponsible of Western analysts to start pontificating on the relevance of social media to the Tunisian uprising without talking to Tunisians

(Quoting her context-free is irresponsible. Attributing anxiety to her based on your decontextualized presentation of her statement is reprehensible.)

69

Salient 10.10.11 at 10:22 pm

…and before you get on my case for calling you awful and reprehensible (which you’re perfectly welcome to do), let’s note that I and others played along with your question and answered it very specifically and literally, clarifying that there’s nothing unusual about unease at the phrasing of “Facebook connected us” that is disjoint from unease at the phrasing “telephones connected us” but also exploring the curiousness of language and, charitably, ignoring the accusatory aspect of your post entirely.

But you had to press the point…

(2) Do you find the description of the events in Tunis as a “human revolution” to be tautological and vacuous? If so, why do you think the author included that phrase, and if not, what signal do you think it is adding?

…really? You’re going to push us on this? egad. And we were being so nice about ignoring it.

When someone says, This was absolutely not a ‘social media’ revolution. Bullets were audible in the streets of Tunis today, and you claim to not understand the meaning of the first sentence even given the context of the second, and you attribute this lack of understanding to vacuousness on their part, deriving from anxiety… be prepared for some blood vessels to pop among the audience here and there, y’know?

Alright, I’ll let off now.

70

Geoffrey 10.10.11 at 10:59 pm

To Ray, way back up there at #13 – no, that was not my point, and the last time I was misquoted so badly was by David Frum.

I mentioned the way the tools helped inform those of us far away. That’s all. I made no category mistake that I was somehow participating in them. I do so love it when people say I said stuff I didn’t say, have never said, and would never say. Makes me feel all warm and cuddly inside.

71

Henry 10.10.11 at 11:34 pm

It seems to me that the tone of comments here at CT is taking a significant turn for the worse, as people start to make claims (without any very great evidence to support them) that people who fail to agree with them and/or appreciate their or their mates’ necessarily devastating criticisms must _ipso facto_ be operating in bad faith. As this begins to spiral, it has unfortunate social consequences. I would therefore ask commenters to please try to get their points and criticisms across without assuming that their interlocutors are willfully stupid and/or dishonest, unless they have extravagantly convincing evidence that their interlocutors _are_ wilfully obtuse and/or dishonest. Try being about two degrees nicer than you feel like being for a little while, to cool the temperature down a bit. I honestly think that this will make everyone better off.

72

Lemuel Pitkin 10.11.11 at 12:00 am

I think you are simply wrong here. All three authors do ascribe a political role to social media, which ascription I read as a vote for its legitimacy.

Gah. Yes, of course they do. What they don’t do is the other thing: “assure us … that they are not making the terrible mistake of describing tools as if they had some sort of agency.” That’s the position the rest of your post is arguing with. But you just made it up.

73

Matt McIrvin 10.11.11 at 12:06 am

Twitter and Facebook are software tools made by rich Westerners. Calling the Tunisian revolution a Twitter revolution reinforces a quasi-colonial narrative in which Tunisians throwing off bad Tunisian government is really all about a bunch of Americans in California. Most of the unproblematic cases mentioned don’t have this particular quality.

I think that’s all that’s going on here.

74

Lemuel Pitkin 10.11.11 at 12:06 am

Henry, I’m sorry! I really was too combative in response to John Q.’s Europe post. My criticisms of him were largely unjustified. We could have had the same (ultimately quite illuminating) discussion much more pleasantly if I’d framed my initial intervention as questions rather than attacks. But this one… I’m sorry, but sometimes bullshit has to be called.

75

Salient 10.11.11 at 12:15 am

Try being about two degrees nicer than you feel like being for a little while, to cool the temperature down a bit.

Can do, will do. I’ll retract what I said in #68-69 in the interest of comity (and if it feels like it would help matters at all, certainly feel free to erase/delete ’em). Here is the same thing, many degrees nicer:

I feel that each of the quoted authors had a good (non-tautological/nonvacuous) reason to use the phrasing they did, which is to me seems evident in context. I feel it’s unfair to accuse them of anxiety.

In the case of Jeff Neumann, the one quoted phrase does not make his intended meaning clear, but his subsequent paragraph does make it clear (to me at least) that he’s concerned that the focus on usage of new media will elide the combative aspects of the revolution: war is happening, bullets are flying, fires are burning, people are physically suffering, and we shouldn’t paper over that or ignore it because we’re so excited about the Facebookery. I emphatically agree with this. Now sure, a scholar studying new media might have every reason to ignore the bullets and fires, and focus on Twitter usage &etc. But that’s not what we should be hearing about in the real-time press — or at least, not to the point where abatractified discussion of new media usage overshadows the violence and suffering that are occurring in real time.

It’s possible to squeefully geek out to the announcement of the iPhone 4S, but expressing a similarly gleeful reaction to Facebook usage is deeply disconcerting (I have in mind a particular CNN panel segment in which the use of Facebook was discussed in a kind of breathlessly excited way, almost as an ad for Facebook, but there are surely a wealth of other examples from cable TV).

In the case of Achalla Venu, I felt it was deeply unfair to make any critical assessment of language use, because the piece in question showed traditionally acknowledged signs of being written by someone not fluent in English as a primary language. Questioning an ESL writer’s grammar, and inferring a psychological state/condition from it, seems offensive to me–especially a relatively obscure blog post, which seems to have attracted little attention–but it’s probably just a very unfortunate choice of example to have included.

In the case of Jillian York, she specifies that she has seen, and felt frustrated by, usage of the phrase Twitter Revolution. Evaluating her use of language outside that context strikes me as unfair to her, and making decontextualized inferences about her mental state seems all the more unfair. It makes sense that she would assert her intention to use the phrase human revolution, not because she finds this superior to revolution, but because she wants to emphasize the impropriety of the phrase Twitter Revolution by explicitly displacing the word Twitter. (It is a rhetorical gambit employed for reasons very similar to those I inferred from Neumann.)

76

Salient 10.11.11 at 12:19 am

Ironically, my much more moderate post (and apology) got stuck in moderation.

Well, in case that’s lost to the aether: I’m sorry for the stuff from me upthread; feel free to delete or displace it; I ought to be more charitable and will be.

77

Jon 10.11.11 at 1:17 am

I’m coming in late, and there’s been a lot of sturm ung drang, but this really has been a curious thread — for largely the reasons Lemuel gave. None of Clay’s three examples involve people who are unwilling to use the term “Facebook revolution” because they’re unwilling to describe social media tools as if they had agency. All of them involve people who are unwilling to use the term “Facebook revolution” because they feel that doing so, on these particular facts, would acribe to Facebook undue importance. It would be like calling the French Revolution the “Dagger Revolution” because some of the revolutionaries used daggers. The mere fact that some of the educated classes in certain other countries are really fascinated with daggers, wouldn’t make it a good description.

78

Kaveh 10.11.11 at 1:28 am

FWIW, I think there is an interesting discussion to be had here–if not the one Clay originally had in mind–about where we locate the agency in the inventing and operating of SMT and related tools. The reaction against calling Tunisia’s revolution a Twitter revolution because Twitter is an American company is very understandable, but a little misguided. Not because it mis-attributes agency to tools or to American companies, but because it’s simply wrong to think of the internet and internet tools as an especially American thing. I think one thing that could be operating here is a kind of professional divide between people (especially in humanities academia, journalism, and related fields) who are more inclined to see SMT in terms of some broader historical narrative, and those who don’t think to look at it in that way.

Wael Ghoneim was, after all, a Google executive who worked in the Middle East. Many of the IT professionals and innovators in Silicon Valley are Middle Eastern expats and immigrants (California and Northern Virginia have some of the US’s biggest Iranian communities, iirc Toronto actually has a special representative in the Iranian parliament for Iranian citizens residing there), to say nothing of all the S and E Asian immigrants and expats employed by tech industries. All that brain drain didn’t happen for nothing.

By all accounts, even though SMT was often inaccessible to most people involved in the revolutions at any given time, they played a big role in creating a critical mass of demonstrators in the first place, after which point things took off and people resorted to more primitive media like photocopying fliers or shouting from rooftops. IIRC protesters in the Tahrir encampment often had access to the internet, if only in the form of data access through their cell phones; al-Jazeera relied very heavily on citizen journalists at various points (other networks did the same or had nothing ‘original’ to report at all).

People involved in various sorts of migration processes, especially people who are well-educated, tend to be more sophisticated in their use of communications technologies, needing to keep in touch with distant relatives & friends.

In the revolution, there seemed to be a definite pattern where educated, wealthier Egyptians like Ghoneim would get arrested along with other protesters, and because people knew to look for them (and spread word using SMT), the army/police would release them, and then they would disseminate info on the behavior of army/police, conditions in the prisons, circumstances of their arrest, &c. (also mostly using SMT). Previously, the Egyptian government had done a good job of exploiting the class divide, but the combination of the chaos created by the demonstrations and the government response to them, and the availability of faster communication tools made that harder for them to do.

The use of SMT isn’t just determined by class, SMT interacts with class formations and changes how they behave.

79

Watson Ladd 10.11.11 at 1:47 am

Kaveh, thanks for posting a good overview for those of us who didn’t know the way these tools were being used. What’s interesting is that the tools used (Facebook and Twitter) were never the tools intended to be used for insurrection. This was not the result of LiveCDs with GPG installed letting people securely plan an insurrection, or Tor letting people get the word out, or Usenet exposes, which was for many years the dominant narrative of how the internet was going to change the face of politics. Someone like Phil Zimmerman will describe Zfone as enabling people to communicate to challenge oppression, but it seems publicly available Facebook works well because the secret police cannot nab everyone.

80

tomslee 10.11.11 at 1:56 am

On the ‘no one would deny those people found SM technology very useful…‘ question, and the request for examples from elm #64.

I don’t think being useful is a high enough bar, by the way, for us to talk about social media shaping events (or people shaping events via social media). But still…

Juan Cole, who is someone, writes that “Television is light years more important than the internet [in the Libyan uprising]… Almost everyone has access to television, while only 5.4% have internet (and of course Qaddafi cut off the internet for the past few months).” He goes on:

Since the popular uprisings in urban areas from February 17 in Libya did not look different from those in Tunisia and Egypt, I think we may conclude that social media weren’t that central to these revolutions. Chanting in the streets, passing slogans and demands from balcony to balcony and neighborhood to neighborhood, was the real social media.

It is certainly possible to read papers like this one on “Lessons from the Arab Uprisings” by Andrea Teti and Gennaro Gervasi that don’t mention the Internet but do mention many other factors in shaping the course of events.

I am much less of a someone, but while it does seem clear that SM was important for the Egyptian opposition and useful for Tunisian activists, it’s not clear to me that it was important for shaping the course of events outside Egypt.

81

Tom 10.11.11 at 2:40 am

… even though SMT was often inaccessible to most people involved in the revolutions at any given time, they played a big role in creating a critical mass of demonstrators in the first place …

I think this amplification of local political action to the MSM’s threshold of interest is the big opportunity afforded to political activists by SMT.

I’ve seen the dynamic operating in less dramatic circumstances here in Australia.

Earlier in the year a relatively low-key, electronically published open letter that called on a local university not to host a speaking engagement for climate change denialist Christopher Monckton was alley-ooped by Twitter discussion into a prime time TV and broadsheet news item within a couple of days, which in return provoked a heated response from his sponsors in the resource industry.

The end result was that the links between big business and anti-science campaigning were brought further into the public eye.

The points of interest were traditional media journalists using Twitter dialogues as research material, the further prolonged flurry of discussion on the internet once the story reached the MSM. What would once have been a disgruntled Letter to the Editor ended up occupying a whole news cycle.

82

Tom 10.11.11 at 2:44 am

The conclusion is that social networks have a big influence on all media content if the custodians of traditional media habitually access social networks. Which by and large they do.

83

tomslee 10.11.11 at 2:47 am

… and of course Evgeny Morozov has been outspoken, generally taking the position that digital tools are vulnerable, see here for an example, and Malcolm Gladwell got all kinds of flack for this piece.

84

Kaveh 10.11.11 at 2:56 am

Wattson @80 YW, but I’m really just analyzing the data available to me from following traditional and internet media coverage closely. It’s entirely possible that things like Tor, intended for activism, played a role I’m not aware of, e.g. in setting up the original big demonstration, which was an extremely sophisticated operation involving precise coordination by many people (basically, to keep their main demonstration from being immediately confronted and broken up by police, they announced a location for a rally, then started several other marches from poor neighborhoods that attracted many un-wired residents of those neighborhoods, and converged on a central location, forming a mass of demonstrators too big for the police to break up). AFAIK the people who coordinated that were not something like ordinary or casual facebook users.

85

Rich Puchalsky 10.11.11 at 3:15 am

hdn’t rd th Mlclm Gldwll pc bfr t ws lnkd bv. ccrdng t t:

“Th bbl f th scl-md mvmnt s Cly Shrky’s “Hr Cms vrybdy.” Shrky, wh tchs t Nw Yrk nvrsty, sts t t dmnstrt th rgnzng pwr f th ntrnt, nd h bgns wth th stry f vn, wh wrkd n Wll Strt, nd hs frnd vnn, ftr sh lft hr smrt phn, n xpnsv Sdkck, n th bck st f Nw Yrk Cty txcb. […]
“Whn vn -mld th tn-gr, Ssh, skng fr th phn bck, sh rpld tht hs “wht ss” ddn’t dsrv t hv t bck. Mffd, h st p Wb pg wth hr pctr nd dscrptn f wht hd hppnd. H frwrdd th lnk t hs frnds, nd thy frwrdd t t thr frnds. Smn fnd th MySpc pg f Ssh’s byfrnd, nd lnk t t fnd ts wy nt th st. Smn fnd hr ddrss nln nd tk vd f hr hm whl drvng by; vn pstd th vd n th st.”

Tht’s th prms f th scl-md mvmnt? Tht wht ppl frm Wll Strt wll b bl t trck dwn nd stlk brwn 16 yr lds wh rcvd thr lctrnc gr s stln prprty? Thr th sbtxt f “Twttr nbld th gyptn rvltn” s jst txt.

86

js. 10.11.11 at 5:15 am

Re Clay Shirky at 56:

Yes, issues of grammar and semantics are inherently interesting (at least I think so). But, as other people are saying, maybe you’re latching onto the wrong issues in this specific case. The objection just isn’t about attributing agency to tools or technology. That’s absolutely fine. It’s the particular bits of technology these particular revolutions/uprisings, etc. keep getting attributed to that’s the problem.

So when people say we shouldn’t attribute these revolutions to social media—shouldn’t count social media as a cause—they’re not manifesting an anxiety about attributing agency to tools; they’re making a point about what happened in several North African countries this year.

And just to cover Henry at 71, I don’t think the original argument is in bad faith; it just seems like a case of drawing the wrong general conclusion from a specific claim (which already was a reasonable response to certain overblown and overly generalized claims in (at least) the American media).

87

Bill Benzon 10.11.11 at 7:40 am

Not so long ago no one anywhere on earth had ever seen a wagon or carriage move unless is was pulled by animals or humans. It just didn’t happen. And then someone figured out how to put an engine inside a carriage so that the carriage could move, albeit on rails, without any animals or humans to propel it.

This strange creature was the source of semantic problems. On the one hand, it was dead matter, a complex mechanical contraption, simply a machine. But, it also had the power of self-propulsion, like living things. So, what was it, beast or machine? So they used figurative language, such as ‘iron horse.’

It’s easy for us to miss how troubling those creatures were because we’ve grown up in a world where self-propelled machines of all kinds are common. We don’t have to somehow fit them into a conceptual system that got ‘locked in’ before these things were invented. So we no longer need metaphor to deal with them.

But, what about computers, aka thinking machines? They’re complex contraptions of dead matter which we interact with through language. We’re still trying to figure out what kind of things computers are.

I suspect something similar is going on with social media. It’s new, and we don’t quite know what these things are, animal, vegetable, or mineral? And so the agency police feel a need to get on the case.

I’ve blogged about this semantic problem here:

http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/search?q=Thoreau

88

Martin Bento 10.11.11 at 8:44 am

Matt, if Twitter were an Indian company, would it make any difference? I don’t think so. The issue is with granting a corporation agency for something it did not intend to do, and was not a foreseeable and inevitable consequence of what it did intend to do. Metaphorical agency is a problem because it will be conflated with the actual agency corporations possess, usually in a selective manner determined by the corporation. This does not apply to, for example, brandy.

89

novakant 10.11.11 at 8:47 am

Ascribing agency to humans is not entirely unproblematic either.

90

derek 10.11.11 at 9:50 am

So will Americans stop calling their revolution the American Revolution and start calling it the Press Revolution? It seems they think their revolution was about Americans; it’s only foreigners whose name they want to replace with the name of a media technology.

91

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.11.11 at 10:02 am

Well, they give a lot of credit to Paul Revere’s horse….

92

Clay Shirky 10.11.11 at 2:08 pm

Well, I see we’ve gotten to the disemvowelling part of the proceedings, so I guess that’s /thread for me. I’ll end with a short list of things I now believe.

On the larger subject, I buy, at least for the sake of argument, that agency attribution sounds odd in inverse proportion to the “humaness” of the tool. A knife can cut the bread, the TV can teach you something, but a phone can’t break up with you. This has interesting ramifications for talking about the spread of information through the social graph, since, at the link level, it looks like a phone, and, at the graph level, it has the reach of broadcast.

In addition, asserting a technology’s relative importance in a political situation sounds like an assertion of its absolute importance. I found it striking that what looks to me like a common-sense observation — if only one government in history has put a gun on its flag, it probably thinks a lot of that gun — elicited something like this reaction. Contrariwise, assertions that the technology wasn’t the most important thing read as an assertion that it would be best not to talk about that technology in that circumstance at all.

On the narrower subject, even in a post that doesn’t use the phrase Twitter Revolution (or, indeed, either of those words), it’s difficult not to have the conversation devolve into that. In February, Jay Rosen wrote a good piece on the assertions that somewhere out there nameless people have advanced serious, causal claims of the sort: http://pressthink.org/2011/02/the-twitter-cant-topple-dictators-article/ That dynamic seems largely unabated.

And, finally, I have adopted Rich’s belief, namely that the “it was _people_ that toppled the government” claims, which looked to me to be smothering tautologies, aren’t born of concern that the author not be mistaken for a techno-determinist, but for a neo-colonialist.

93

Salient 10.11.11 at 2:29 pm

And, finally, I have adopted Rich’s belief, namely that the “it was people that toppled the government” claims, which looked to me to be smothering tautologies, aren’t born of concern that the author not be mistaken for a techno-determinist, but for a neo-colonialist.

Wow. This thing where you provocatively ascribe offensive interpretations of motive to people you’ve chosen to talk about? It feels quite a bit like what we’ve just been asked by Henry to avoid. Surely you understand that leaves your readers feeling disgruntled, hurt, and even a little mistreated?

94

Matt McIrvin 10.11.11 at 2:41 pm

@Martin Bento: I think if Twitter were a Tunisian company, that probably would have made a big difference, rightly or wrongly.

95

Ellis Goldberg 10.11.11 at 4:21 pm

Kaveh’s description of Jan. 25 sounds accurate and I assume is drawn from the description of those events by the organizers. However the truly massive Jan. 28 events often began in front of mosques or churches and crowds gathered for several hours (during the noon prayer since it was a Friday). Frequently, as at the Mostafa Mahmoud mosque where I was, the demonstrators were surrounded by riot police with helmets, shields, and clubs. During this period the internet was still closed down although the cell phone network may have come back on line. Wael’s Kullina Khalid Said FB page was indeed one very important tool but I do believe discussions of events in Egypt at least underestimate the role of cell phones in a continuum of oral communication. Television remains important as Juan says but Egyptian state tv which many Egyptians watched (and which I also had to watch since like them I didn’t have either satellite or internet connections) was a farrago of disinformation designed to frighten and confuse people.

96

nick 10.11.11 at 4:32 pm

Clay–Most tools aren’t used for communication; “social media” are; it seem weird that a “social media” scholar has written a post and a whole bunch of comments in which the concept of a “medium” is ignored/replaced with that of a “tool.”

97

Philip 10.11.11 at 6:44 pm

Clay, I know you’re not replying to comments anymore on this but I agree with Lemuel. You don’t give an example of anyone saying that social media shouldn’t be given agency just that they didn’t cause the revolution and they weren’t the most import aspect of it. From your OP: ‘Did social media have an effect on events in Tunisia? Undoubtedly, yes’ Neuman gives agency to social media. So does Venu: ‘they [Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, Flickr] all played their part’.

It’s all about context ‘the knife cut the bread easily’ is fine for a review of a knife but ‘the knife cuts the bread’ is wrong when talking about making a sandwich because the knife shouldn’t be the subject of the sentence as it’s not important. So when talking about the effects of communications technology having them as the subject is fine ‘phones help people talk to each other in real time over large distances’, ‘twitter has changed the way people get information about celebrities’. When talking about the revolutions the people are the main subject not the technology.

98

djr 10.11.11 at 8:18 pm

Although we refer to tools as though they had agency all the time, it’s usually fairly clear who we’re actually attributing the agency to – the person holding the breadknife, say. Even when there is more than one option, from the context we know whether the writer is attributing agency to the captain of the boat, the owners of the shipping company, the passengers who boarded a scheduled service, or whoever. When it’s social media, it’s really unclear who the writer means to attribute agency to. Twitter the company? All Twitter users? Lady Gaga?

99

Martin Bento 10.11.11 at 8:33 pm

Matt, in the practical sense, sure, but that’s not a function of colonialism, but of sovereignty. If Twitter were in Tunisia, Tunisia could mess with it more thoroughly. As it is, the US can mess with it more thoroughly than Cuba can because it is here. India was a major victim of colonialism, so if colonialism were the issue that would seem to matter, but it doesn’t.

novakant, if you don’t believe agency is a meaningful concept, then the whole discussion is likely meaningless to you. However, if anything has agency, humans top the list, corporations do pretty well, knives and brandy are considerably weaker.

100

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.11.11 at 8:49 pm

Brandy’s weaker? Don’t they say “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”?

101

Main Street Muse 10.11.11 at 9:12 pm

First of all, the sentence, “During the 1920s, Forts Hamilton, Victoria and St George carried the passengers” is indeed confusing unless you know that the forts in question are boats, not fortified structures that house troops. You would also need to recognize that Victoria is a boat, not a queen and St. George is also boat, not a dragon slayer. Language used imprecisely is always confusing.

When we analyze the great battles of history, we certainly do look at how the tools of battle changed the fight. But in the end, history is the story of the people who wield the tools and who call the shots and who develop the strategies. The atomic bomb did not drop on Japan by itself. It was ordered dropped by President Truman and it was so dropped by the crew of Enola Gay. The atom bomb certainly changed how we conduct war, but the bomb itself does not wage war. It is a tool of battle.

And back in 1776, those men who made a revolution didn’t need the iPhone to make a difference. The desire to engage in civil disobedience has never relied on technology to succeed, but on the great faith, hope and work of those seeking the change. Paul Revere looked to church lamps for info (“one if by land, two if by sea). Today, we look to Twitter. And yes, the tools of today enable those on the front lines to communicate the issue/situation/story much more quickly than Revere’s ride. But it doesn’t mean that the tools are the reason for the revolution.

102

bianca steele 10.11.11 at 9:24 pm

I’m sick so I can’t expand this much and hopefully this will make sense.

I’m not convinced the issue has to do with how we talk about “communications media” as it’s put in the OP. There are lots of reasons to be dubious about attributions of agency to software systems of every kind, some in my opinion way overblown (and possibly stemming from linguistic issues with the way software is discussed) but others more or less reasonable. There are also good reasons to be dubious generally about attributing agency to technology in ways that deny it to humans. Then there are the arguments about these technologies being privately owned and so forth. I’m not convinced what’s at issue here is specific to social media. Much less “communications media”–people have no trouble attributing agency to “the press” or even “the culture industry” in a casual way.

If the argument relies entirely on the unimaginability of anyone’s saying “whiskey doesn’t cause drunkenness, drinking does,” a lot is riding on massive failures of imagination.

103

novakant 10.11.11 at 9:44 pm

novakant, if you don’t believe agency is a meaningful concept, then the whole discussion is likely meaningless to you.

Actually I do believe that agency/free will is a meaningful concept, the question is what exactly does it mean? Once you take it seriously as a concept and actually try to come to terms with it rather than simply presupposing it, things get very difficult very quickly as the still very vibrant debate about this subject illustrates.

104

Meredith 10.11.11 at 10:23 pm

Maybe we should be talking about how our tools construct our agency, and then how we intervene in that constructive project. The interactive is hard to talk about because at any given moment you’re freezing a process and thereby distorting it. The generous expectation of ongoing-ness is needed.

105

Bill Benzon 10.11.11 at 10:41 pm

I’m not convinced what’s at issue here is specific to social media.

yes yes yes!

106

MarkUp 10.11.11 at 11:23 pm

Imagine if Publius had had a Twitter account.

107

john c. halasz 10.11.11 at 11:30 pm

108

tib 10.12.11 at 2:32 am

We recognize freedom of the press as essential to a free society (attributing agency to the press). But we can’t claim social media fills the role of a free press in an authoritarian society? That seems to me to be a very peculiar argument, the printing press is not in some realm beyond Facebook and Twitter.

109

Martin Bento 10.12.11 at 7:55 am

We recognize water as essential to life. This does not mean we attribute agency to water. Saying that a free press is necessary to democracy is fine, a free Internet, at this point, perhaps more so. But saying Facebook and Twitter, or “social media” in a context that is understood to mean Facebook and Twiiter pretty much exclusively, is like saying the New York Times, not “a free press”, is necessary to democracy. In certain situations, the NYT may well fill that role, but it specifically is not essential.

110

engels 10.13.11 at 12:24 pm

I don’t know about Flickr but I’m sure they couldn’t have done it without Steve Jobs. Has he been canonised yet btw?

111

Lemuel Pitkin 10.13.11 at 4:42 pm

But we can’t claim social media fills the role of a free press in an authoritarian society?.

You can claim that all you want, no one’s stopping you. But it would be good to base that claim on some actual, y’know, evidence about those societies. Who knows, maybe in Egypt it was football clubs that filled the role of a free press.

112

Kurt Vega 10.13.11 at 7:27 pm

The phone doesn’t follow the agency shorthand because it’s mainly a one to one communication device. One to many and many to many communications neatly follow the shorthand.

113

Martin Bento 10.13.11 at 8:05 pm

So when President Obama has a press conference claiming he foiled a terrorist plot, it would be reasonable to say “my television claims Obama foiled a terrorist plot” because it is one to many communication?

114

bianca steele 10.13.11 at 9:33 pm

Martin Bento:
We don’t say “Colt” shot a person, but we do say “Johnny Walker” has whatever proof, etc. We may see a time when the operators of websites want to distinguish themselves from their products, but I guess we’re not seeing that yet. OTOH, I think of “Facebook” as being the computer system (and the usual concern about agency the tax preparer who attributes errors to “the computer”), though then again I may not be typical. Still, I don’t think anybody is attributing either connecting users or sending users’ data to the employees of the corporations. Their data is their own.

115

Martin Bento 10.14.11 at 12:49 am

Johnny Walker having a proof is an attribute, not agency. It didn’t choose to have that proof, and the verb “have” does not imply that it did, even metaphorically. Facebook is a corporation. Every computer they use could be replaced without changing their identity. Their software could be completely rewritten, all their employees could be replaced – they are still Facebook. It’s not a technology: MySpace, Friendster, etc. are substantially the same technology, but are not Facebook.

116

bianca steele 10.14.11 at 1:24 am

It’s not a technology: MySpace, Friendster, etc. are substantially the same technology, but are not Facebook.

I’m not sure what this means.

117

Kaveh 10.14.11 at 2:17 pm

@116 You mean you’re not sure what implications Martin is saying it has for the subject at hand, or that you literally don’t know what he means? He’s literally saying they’re companies producing the same technology, like Ford, Honda, & Toyota are companies that make the same technology (cars and trucks). Cars & trucks is the technology, Ford is the company. Which is good as far as it goes, but we do often use the name of a company as a generic term for a type of product, viz Kleenex for tissues, Bandaid for… bandaids (“disposable adhesive bandages”?)

I think it should be clear by now there isn’t any strict linguistic rule that applies.

118

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.14.11 at 2:32 pm

“disposable adhesive bandages”?

Or ‘plasters’, as the limeys call it.

119

bianca steele 10.14.11 at 2:47 pm

Kaveh:
There are different definitions of “technology,” so I literally don’t know what Martin was saying. For example, diesel is a distinct technology: that’s one definition of “technology,” for which what MB said might be true in some cases. MP3 and AAC are the same technology on one definition, and different technologies on another definition. A Dell laptop and a Lenovo desktop are the same technology on one definition, and different technologies on another definition. I would guess that people who take courses in “technology” learn highly technical definitions of “technology” that are different from the definitions in casual use among people who take courses in, e.g., circuit design.

120

MarkUp 10.14.11 at 3:57 pm

119 – “I would guess that people who take courses in “technology” learn highly technical definitions of “technology” that are different from the definitions in casual use among people who take courses in, e.g., circuit design.”

And in the end, it the bloke over in Marketing/Purchasing that determines which product/brand to go with. Dell v. Lenovo are overlapping the same tech[s] to produce similar, often distinguishable products; one has a white case and call centers in Malaysia for example.

Glowing coal ember, safety match, electric stove element, Bic™ Disposable lighter + cigarette = Mona Lisa’s smile +/- ;)

121

tib 10.15.11 at 5:56 pm

Martin Bento @109: I take Shirky to be attempting to move the conversation beyond Revolution Branding by surfacing the contortions observers have gotten themselves into while avoiding brands.

Lemuel Pitkin @111: Football clubs as a form of communication is an interesting thesis, as is the whole Tocquevillian analysis of freedom of association. But the Egyptian Football Association was founded in 1921, and has been a major part of Egyptian society for a long time, what changed? And does freedom of association really function identically to freedom of expression in a revolution? Participation in a football club is a relatively high level of commitment, compared to reading. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in the piece linked @83 social media builds on the weak ties more typical of the press than of associations.

Obviously any claim should be tested against evidence, even the claim that social media had little role in these revolutions.

122

Kaveh 10.15.11 at 6:29 pm

@121 One thing other than SMT that I think changed a lot is a growth of manufacturing in the Nile Delta region especially, followed by lots of union activity including a lot of strikes in the past 10 years. But SMT *may* have played a role in making urban educated young people more aware of this, thus more motivated to act. (Of course another thing that changed was Mubarak getting close to death and elections coming up.)

123

Rich Puchalsky 10.16.11 at 3:26 am

Dead thread, I know… but it’s instructive to see just how little Occupy Wall Street depends on all the techno-optimist standbys. Twitter, Facebook, etc.? As far as I can tell, nearly irrelevant. People showed up due to a call from Adbusters, organized their own event, and turned out a small, core group; after that numbers started growing due to the first reports of police violence in mainstream media. Youtube probably helped in getting video of that out, but mostly in the sense that it permitted mainstream news stories on the Web to show it.

Flash mobs? None in evidence. Coordination via handheld devices? Not part of the tactic set at all. Actually, the approach is ideologically low tech, rejecting even sound amplification. If you look at any GA, you’ll see hand signs, notes on pieces of paper, nothing electronic needed for the process at all.

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Rj 10.17.11 at 7:41 am

Clay, why would it not be safe to believe that early accounts of the Arab Spring overstated the use of social media (because they were largely by people that were using social media) and that later accounts were simply more accurate (because they were fact checked)?

Reporters that used social media to research and follow the story are likely to report that the social media was important because it was important to the people they are communicating with however that does not mean that it was significant to the revolution as a whole. Indeed, since the majority of the people in these countries do not have access to these tools, it seems very likely that much activity took place with no reference to social media whatsoever.

Uncovering a strong bias toward a technology by users of the technology and a more moderate perspective by people that take the time to study the issue doesn’t seem like it’s a tremendous insight. Perhaps there is a bias against the technology by the second group but it doesn’t seem plausible to build up a case for it without doing exactly the same research they did, otherwise they may simply be correct.

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Denis Campbell (@ukprogressive) 10.17.11 at 8:33 am

Social media was used to weave the entire narrative in my book Egypt Unshackled. Read the day-by-day account and you see how vital an organising and communications tool it really was, especially in the early days!

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Miranda Meyer 10.17.11 at 8:56 am

[For some reason The Economist doesn’t like my html, or html doesn’t like The Economist, so forgive the messy link–some of the potentially disappearing words would have reeaaally changed my meaning.]

My first thought on this question as it relates to the Arab Spring, or whatever phrase you’d prefer, is that it has much more to do with the Arab Spring than it does with the technology. I think that in the region, and even among those who study it but may not be of it, there is a keen sense that the Arab people(s) have been seen in the West as backward, unmodern, stuck in a sort of civilizational doldrums. I believe this sense is not (http://www.economist.com/node/1213392) entirely unfounded. (This is not to say that no Arabs themselves see things the same way; there are plenty in intellectual circles who do, if the linked Economist piece is to be believed. I haven’t sat at the right dinner tables to know.)

So, with such a frame in mind, it’s easy to see how discussions of “Twitter revolutions,” “Facebook revolutions,” etc. might garner some fervent rebuttals. This is a context in which the discussion of technological agency or contributions can very easily, if implicitly, negate the human and social drivers of history in precisely the way you argue is not at issue. In this sense, the argument is really not about the tools themselves, and it’s less about the broader conflict you are addressing–humans vs. their technologies*–than it is about good old humans vs. humans.

*While shiny new social media are the easiest, sexiest technologies to write about for most journalists, this same argument can easily be made, and vehemently rejected, with regard to the much more retro agriculture and global food markets.

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