UK literary critic Sam Leith has dubbed Facebook the Reuters of Inanity:
…a news agency for stuff nobody wants to know. “Dave is playing on Facebook. Dave is a bit annoyed. Dave is going for a drink. Dave has found a toothsome bit of cheese under the nail on his big toe.”
What readers might find odd is that this is perhaps simultaneously a fitting description, and at the same time could point to why Facebook is so useful as a tool for organising dissent.
In case you don’t know, last week Malcolm Gladwell once again entered the fray about the role of social media in fundamental and high stakes social activism. The much shorter piece titled, Does Egypt need Twitter is much weaker than his original piece.
As sociology prof Zeynep Tufekci (remember that name, you will still hear allot about her) points out, shamelessly contradictory.
The case of Gafsa
Prof Tufeckci makes many salient points about how a movement organising through a tool like Facebook would operate and what impact it could have – which I would highly recommend you read – but for the purpose of this post I would just like to focus on her synthesis – a what if, what if the revolutionaries did not organize using social media?
Thus, our word-of-mouth movement would struggle to grow person-by-person and would be easily outmatched by the state security apparatus. It might be able to put together brave and small demonstrations here and there—the news of which would likely never travel beyond the lonely corner in which they were staged. Even if they managed to get some critical traction in a locality, the state could more easily counter, encircle and repress because unlike the current protests in Egypt and Tunisia, which started rapidly and emerged through a broad-base all at once, authoritarian regimes have a pretty advanced-arsenal against old-fashioned political organizing.
She proposes to compare what has happened now to what happened before – the riots in the Gafsa region from April to June 2008. If you do a Google search, you will find very little information on these riots. Here is one of the few reports in the English:
Tunisian police opened fire against rioters on Friday (June 6th) in Redeyef, 350km from Tunis, leaving a 22-year-old man dead and some 22 wounded, local press reported. Unrest in the phosphate mining region of Gafsa has continued for two months, with hundreds of youths rioting over unemployment and rising living costs in the region.
Note the lone desperate comment underneath it.
Tufeckci asks the key question -
In 2008, protests led by the local trade-union broke out in the Tunisian mining-town of Gafsa over corruption, unemployment and nepotism. Did you know about them? Neither did I, until recently. However, the story is familiar. Tunisian government forces encircled the town, brought in the army when the police proved unable to contain the unrest, kicked out and jailed the journalists trying to cover the story. Isolated and censored, the protests dissipated.
Is the spread and integration of social media into everyday rhythms of Tunisian (and global) populace between 2008 and 2011 a factor in why the world has barely heard of Gafsa while Sidi Bouzid is nearly a household name around the globe? Obviously, there cannot be a definitive answer. However, this is surely worth exploring and a striking example of the “how” of social movements has such profound consequences beyond being fodder for contrarian missives about their irrelevance.
We can answer her. Thanks to the founder of RWW France Fabrice Epelboin who sent me this link on Quora, we know that although Tunisia had almost two million internet users in September 2008, it only had 28,000 Facebook users.
Wow. So Tunisia went from 28 thousand to nearly two million Facebook users in two years (December 2010) adding more than 2000 users per day for two years. Since Ben Ali has been ousted three weeks ago the number of Facebook users have risen by more than 100,000.
Backstory – during and after the Gafsa protests many Tunisian blogs were blocked, and so was Facebook on the 18th of August 2008. Ben Ali himself intervened to unban Facebook on the 3rd of September, precipitating a rise in the spread of the technology that would be called, in the advertising world – viral – or perhaps – off the charts. In other words it would appear to have been a big mistake. It laid the foundation from where information age gorillas could hide in the digital undergrowth (Unfortunately not my metaphor), inserting their messages into newsfeeds for the population at large.
Unlike Tufeckci’s cautious academic approach – I’d say the role of social media and Facebook in particular as a tool for insurrection has been under-egged.
The fog of insurrection is only now starting to lift over the situation in Egypt, but there too the case for role of Facebook as a tool for activism seems to be becoming more compelling, the more information sees the light of day.
A few more thoughts then.
- Publicness matters – many digital activists are fixated with privacy. But taking risks in public was key. It’s the equivalent of a public protest.
- Language matters – As this blog points out, language translation was key to an adoption spike in Facebook use around 2008. Facebook was translated into French (Tunisia’s colonial language) on the 10th of March 2008. Just before the period of massive growth.
- You need everybody – or at least not just the usual suspects. Blogs and Twitter are important – they are for Thought Leaders – but they wont light a fire by themselves. They need the distribution mechanism into people’s ordinary lives. Tufeckci:
“These protests were first kindled through Facebook and other social media which are integrated into rhythms of mundane sociality. This means that rather than being directed at first by a well-defined group of activists who were able to reach only other politically-motivated compatriots, the dissent and the protests propagated through ordinary social networks which, in turn, ensures that the movement is broad-based.”
“Evgeny Morozov repeatedly highlights how social media increases state capacity for state to surveillance. That is certainly worth considering. However, as I argued here, surveillance is not that useful when the opposition activity is completely entangled with everyday sociality of millions of people and when dissent is widespread.”
- With digital tools small design decisions are crucial. UX and functionality decisions by Zuckerburg that has proven to be fundamental. As has been pointed out by many people including Jeff Jarvis, Facebook made two key decisions. The first was that users would use their own names – a real identity. This allowed for Facebook to be more integrated in people’s lives in general. The second was the later innovation of the personal newsfeed, the news of your crowd, or what Sam Leith has dubbed the Reuters of Inanity.
Never before has the mundane and the everyday been such a ticket for utopian dreams.