I’ve researched and written quite a bit on the role of social media in protest and mass uprising. I’ve bored many people to tears about the use of Twitter and Facebook in the Middle East and their potential role in revolution. But, as many have pointed out, I don’t have a Twitter or Facebook account, which strikes many people as amazingly ironic and/or amusing.
In one sense I can understand the confusion. After all, I’m professing to understand and characterize the use of specific technology, and I’ve spent hours and hours researching it. However, the more I thought about the way people react to the fact that I do not use the technology I’m writing about, the more I began to realize how this encapsulates the very challenge of characterizing, contextualizing, and understanding social networking technology. As I’ve written about, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are versatile methods for connecting and communicating with a variety of potential effects. I am interested in their use in protest and mass uprising, which is a very specific aspect of their use. I really couldn’t care less about updating my sandwich making status or getting an update from a celebrity in 140 characters or less.
If I were to be Facebooking or Tweeting, would people assume I’m using it to foment mass protests or uprising because that is the subject I’ve been writing about? As has been becoming more and more clear, the context and purpose all of these tools are used for are the critical pieces people are overlooking. I text message and email, occasionally watch youtube videos, and sometimes read message boards on various political and technological discussions. None of this has anything to do with the larger phenomenon of how new media is affecting revolutionary movements or autocratic governments. There is some important overlap in the sense that I’m of a certain demographic that knows how to use the technology, has access to it, and use it regularly to communicate. But this is where the important distinctions come in: I’m not using it for any of the purposes I’m reading or writing about.
If I had a revolutionary bent, wanted to actively support a cause, or promote something along these lines, then yes I could potentially use the tools I already do in addition to Facebook and Twitter to help that. But that will bring in the much larger questions of what exactly I’m trying to accomplish and whether the tools I’m using will help me achieve those goals in the way I use them. In other words, the presence and use of these instruments do not amount to very much unless they are addressed in the proper context. You don’t need to use the Internet and information and communication technology to have a protest or uprising, and the presence of them in autocratic countries will not simply produce regime change.
I understand how people would assume I’m using Facebook all the time and I think it does pay to have familiarity with these technologies. I am writing about it, and, after all, this is part of the appeal. ‘Everyone’ has access to these tools and they have powerful potential depending on what they are used for, where, and by whom. But the important part to remember is its more about what the user wants to do and can do than whether they are just using the tools.
UPDATE 2014. My Facebook account was reactivated and I established a Twitter account a while ago. The more I’ve thought about connective technologies as instruments, the more I realized I can use their inherent versatility in much more mundane but useful ways than I’ve been researching. It takes a little discipline, and I think that is a big part of dealing with the deluge of digital information resources we have at our finger tips. Limiting time with these tools can make them much more valuable. Sending messages to friends and family is a great simple use of FB that doesn’t take much time (it doesn’t utilize all the capabilities of the platform, but thats ok). On Twitter, I really like getting a stream of breaking news and the challenge of condensing my thoughts on specific technology and policy items that I want to share with people. There has been alot of value in observing the unfolding phenomenon of the impact of technology on society, as there is in participating in its use and figuring out the particular nuances of how it applies in different contexts.