Is the medium really the message?

What revolutions look like

While a lot of ink has been spent anointing the recent popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East as “Wiki Revolutions” or “Revolution 2.0” thanks to the role that social media may have played in facilitating the coordination of mass protest efforts, as a forever skeptic of such hype, I thought I’d check out what the numbers, rather than rhetoric, tell us about the three countries most often mentioned.

So to begin with, the basics –

In short: young, educated, urban populations with dismal job prospects, albeit in relatively (nominal terms) equal societies.

And then, the tech basics –

*Note that user numbers spiked by between 25 and 50 per cent in January 2011 across all three.

The latter chart tells us a few important things, notably that Twitter is of minor consequence as a medium compared to Facebook, and more importantly, that both are rather insignificant compared to mobile phones and by inference, texting.

Evidently one would need to account for the reach and influence of those Twitter (and Facebook) users to ascertain the aggregate role of social media in catalyzing and coordinating the uprising across these three nations but it’s hard to fathom that these were more effective tools than the phones in the pockets of the vast majority. Perhaps this latter inference explains why on January 29th, the day Egypt literally shut down the Internet, the protests, coordinated better than ever, reached their (then) heights. Or as the Atlantic reported, perhaps hand-to-hand distribution of flyers did the trick. Social media tools are just tools, and if not them, other tools will replace them.

Now my former boss has anointed this a “Wiki Revolution” for its birth in individual, uncoordinated actions. He argues that leadership is no longer a necessary element of social uprisings, noting that, “enabled by social media, leadership is coming from the people themselves.” This, however, ignores how social unrest works – past and present. Revolutions have in some cases been led by organized opposition movements, but as often they’ve been led by relatively ragtag groupings of student groups and non-governmental organizations that have their roots in individual action. The colour revolutions across Central Asia and the former Soviet republics provide good examples of the latter. What’s new about similar groupings in North Africa and the Middle East is not the lack of leadership or planning from those involved but rather the relative anonymity of that leadership in online spaces. Moreover, at some point there’s no difference between 100 people who coordinate their efforts under the guise of a specific organization and 100 people who do so on a Facebook page. And as many others have noted, there was no lack of leadership amongst the activists who organized and coordinated the first protests.

And ultimately, all this talk about the role of social media misses the point. Revolutions don’t happen because of tools, they happen because of schisms in the fabric of society. We seem to have forgotten history. Whether it’s the colour revolutions over the past decade, or the Philippine uprisings in 2001 that is commonly known as the first ICT-enabled revolution, let alone those that happened thanks to the radio and the handwritten pamphlets that were passed around in France back in 1789 , revolutions happen regardless of the mediums available.

Sure the Web 2.0 adds another layer, but it’s by no means necessary nor sufficient to enable them. Rather they happen as classless, or perhaps trans-class, challenges to the status-quo, and this cohesive societal backlash only happens when the perceived gap between have and have not, and between the desire for rights and the perception of rights received gets too big.

So while I don’t doubt that social media tools helped coordinate the uprisings, let’s not get too dogmatic about their role as mediums. If anything, perhaps the easily replaceable nature of these tools tells us that Marshall McCluhan’s famous pronoucement on “the medium is the message” needs questioning. For if the medium can be replaced but the outcome remains the same, what does the medium actually do? And does the type of medium matter? Or is simply the fact that mediums convey the power of the message behind it, notably that there exists some form of popular support for the message being sent.

Silver spoon revolutionaries will no doubt rejoice that thanks to the Web 2.0 they can now feel part of the plight of those repressed elsewhere but let’s not kid ourselves, retweeting and “liking” a Facebook page does not constitute involved or engaged participation. Rather, short of taking part in the protests or making tangible investments into change, we quickly forget and move on to the next one, feeling good about ourselves on the way. The hosts of the uprisings, however, get to move on (hopefully) to the slow and often painful process of rebuilding and readjustment that like the initial causes, have their roots in society and economics, not technology.