There's no such thing as 'social media revolution'

Or to put it another way: If activists using Twitter go on to topple a government, the real story should be that the government got toppled, not that the revolution was tweeted.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
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There seems to be a contingent out there that analyzes each of the globe's various political conflicts and attempts to figure out, through plenty of speculation and the occasional Wikipedia look-ups of far-flung sovereignties, which uprising will mark the first true "social media revolution."

A dictator toppled by Twitter or ousted through the efforts of a Facebook group? It's an enticing idea, particularly for those who are in the business of social media and have a personal stake of sorts in tallying each instance of social media's global value making headlines. Twitter punditry this week has been peppered with speculation about whether upheaval in Tunisia or the subsequent anti-government protests in Egypt might amount to the "first" true revolution spawned by social media. But this just isn't the right way to measure things: the occurrence of a "social media revolution," at this point, should be neither noteworthy nor remarkable. If a dictator is overthrown or a government ousted, it would be notable if Facebook or Twitter weren't used.

That's because social media is a part of the world we live in and has become such a crucial form of communication that it will factor into any political movement nearly anywhere in the world. In other words, the use of Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube should not be what's worth talking about. At this point, it takes away from the substance of the revolution (or lack thereof) itself.

This sort of rhetoric has been going on for nearly two years when an anti-government uprising in Iran swelled up through Twitter and, as a result of traditional media crackdowns, became the primary medium in which much of the world knew about what was going on in the Islamic nation. The activists' efforts ultimately had far less impact on the government than many of the breathless Twitter observers expected, and for too many of them it's now known as the movement in which everyone tinted their Twitter profile photos with green as a sign of solidarity (which now seems awfully passive). This, alas, wasn't "the social media revolution." And so the pundits moved on.

So let's look at the basic numbers. Facebook has more than 600 million users around the world, an inarguable lock on the mainstream in much of the world and significant penetration even in the countries where it doesn't have as much reach. Twitter is about one-third its size, though its most active users tend to be more in the vein of newshounds and culture fans than FarmVille players and vacation photo swappers--which may be the reason why the smaller Twitter is as important, if not more so, than Facebook in political activism. Both social media services are actively looking to expand their reach in developing countries, particularly Facebook, which has launched mobile sites and applications geared to lower-end cell phones and slower connections.

The truth is that smaller elements of "social media revolution" have been all around us already for over half a decade--even in our own, comparatively humdrum political system in which "revolution" means a switch in the partisan balance of a governing body accompanied by plenty of red-and-blue news-ticker graphics on cable networks. George Allen, a Republican senator from Virginia, was in a tight race for re-election in 2006 until a video from a campaign rally surfaced on YouTube in which he called one of his opponent's campaign staff volunteers by a bizarre epithet that turned out to be a racial slur of sorts. The video went viral, Allen lost, and his "macaca moment" has been widely highlighted as the source of his downfall--in spite of the presence of countless strategists, publicists, and glossy campaign ads, social media's power prevailed.

Yes, social media can lead to the improbable rise of leaders who otherwise might never have had a shot. Without Meetup and the readership of liberal blogs, former Vermont governor Howard Dean might never have had a shot at the Democratic presidential nomination (which, of course, he lost). In 2008, Barack Obama's campaign team's digital savviness was a crucial component in the candidate's popularity among young voters who heavily favored him at the polls. Two years after Obama's inauguration, these things should no longer surprise us--nor should we be surprised that, yes, social media is a vital instrument in political change all over the world.

That's the way things are in an age full of widely accessible yet largely uncontrolled media, in which the barrier to entry for any individual has been vastly lowered and the potential power of an organized mass can impact longstanding establishments. These technological developments have been groundbreaking. But they are not new. And "revolutionaries," whoever they may be, will use social media as an expanded set of tools for the tasks that have always been and remain the most crucial to activists: amassing support, communicating with like-minded people, and spreading the word. The tactics haven't changed. It's just that the available channels of communication have expanded.

Where it does get interesting, social media-wise, is where and when governments choose to crack down. On Tuesday evening, Twitter finally confirmed that Egypt was blocking access to its service after initially refusing to comment on the matter directly, but there were no reports on attempts to control Facebook or any other grassroots organization tool. This sort of thing provides some insight into what a government sees as its biggest digital threats and how it attempts to control and dissuade opposition forces. But the real focus ought to be on what's being said. The real meat of a political uprising is the message itself, and hype about digital media's impact on it all should be well enough accepted by now that it shouldn't take over the limelight.

And should that successful "social media revolution" come along, I hope the digerati gives the successful activists some credit: If they topple a dictator, the real reason isn't that Facebook Groups made it possible for them to organize or because they generated a clever Twitter hashtag. Social media has changed the world, but by no means does it provide a substitute for the human energy and willpower that can bring down governments and cause global reverberations. Let's focus on understanding what really happens.

Besides, if you're keeping a scorecard for social media, you might want to note that, 600 million Facebook users later, it's already won.

This post was expanded at 4:50 a.m. PT.