Saturday, January 15, 2011

Social Media and Tunisia

I haven't kept the social science-speak out of this post, though hopefully I did explain it. My apologies.

There's been a lot of discussion of the role of social media in Tunisia's revolutionary uprising, with Jillian York posting one of the more comprehensive round-ups. I find myself thinking of a framing I used in this article I published a couple of years ago:
"Arab blogs have caught the attention of Middle East watchers. Much of the attention dedicated to them, however, has dealt with their political importance, whether as a mobilizing tool for activists or as an alternative source of news reporting. Blogging is also interesting, however, as a new and perhaps significant departure in the history of media in the Middle East. By this I do not mean 'media' in the common late 20th century usage in which it applies primarily to those who work within unidirectional mass media, but rather as a medium of communication. In particular, I am interested in the way media enables and structures relationships between and among senders and receivers of ideas and information, as well as in the mechanisms of reception of messages and the perceptions of media forms and transmitters which circumscribe their authority."

That last sentence deals with the social aspects of the transmission of ideas. What is your relation to the sources of information and ideas with whom you communicate, and in what ways do different media forms affect how you perceive information just because of the media through which it is transmitted? In my conclusion, I highlighted the ways in which blogs, a form of social media, create a new sort of space. Being a finicky academic for a moment, I'm no longer entirely happy with the coffeehouse analogy, since I suspect much of what is attributed to Ottoman coffeehouses could previously have been found in bazaars. Beyond that, however, I also wonder how, then, the spaces created by social media lie embedded within the physical world.

Marc Lynch calls attention to the totality of the media environment:
"I would suggest that analysts not think about the effects of the new media as an either/or proposition ('Twitter vs. al-Jazeera'), but instead think about new media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SMS, etc) and satellite television as collectively transforming an complex and potent evolving media space. Without the new social media, the amazing images of Tunisian protestors might never have escaped the blanket repression of the Ben Ali regime --- but it was the airing of these videos on al-Jazeera, even after its office had been shuttered, which brought those images to the mass Arab public and even to many Tunisians who might otherwise not have realized what was happening around their country."

I would go beyond that and ask how Tunisians actually used all these media forms, and what role they played together and separately within society. I've heard a lot about Twitter, but Luke Allnut's information that 18% of Tunisians are on Facebook suggests we need a lot more information about the role that played. Does this, however, include a critical mass of trade unionists and rural workers who mobilized their own constituencies, or were they relying solely on al-Jazeera? If, as I suspect, the social media presence is primarily one of the upper middle classes, then what relationship did they have to other elements of the uprising? I suspect the key lies where Lynch puts it, in the use of social media to generate content for integrated media platforms that then spread it in other ways, but until we start to get more fine-grained knowledge of the mechanics of mobilization and information transmission, we can't say for sure.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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