Media Life and Protests in the Arab World

It is safe to say that just about every news organization and technology-blog spends significant time these days engaging with the ongoing protests and turmoil across the Arab world and the role of internet and mobile media in general and Al-Jazeera, Twitter, Facebook, and texting in particular.

Let me refer to several excellent essays and posts on this issue by people much better positioned than I am to engage in this debate: Robert Worth and David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times on Al-Jazeera, Net sociologist Zeynep Tufekci on social media and Twitter, and Matthew Ingram of GigaOm on networked media.

UPDATE: Not to mention two more excellent perspectives: Richard Grusin (see comment below this post) on the crisis in Egypt and the concept of premediation, and Ulises Mejias on why "The Twitter Revolution Must Die".

I'm covering this debate in my (work-in-progress) Media Life book, aiming to articulate a position beyond whether 'media did it', instead suggesting that lived experience is synonymous with mediated experience, and therefore we cannot experience a revolution or indeed any kind of process of social change outside of media.

Excerpts from the draft manuscript that talk about this issue:

Asked for advice on what it takes to become president when speaking with a group of 14- and 15-year-olds on 8 September 2009, US president Barack Obama answered:
"I want everybody here to be careful about what you post on Facebook, because in the YouTube age, whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life. And when you're young, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff."
Such advice seems to make sense - as employers reportedly check social network sites to research job candidates. Countries such as Germany and Spain attempt to curtail such practices, seeking to make it illegal for prospective employers to check up on applicants' private postings - clearly assuming that in our mass self-communication sometimes we need to be protected from ourselves.

Although such efforts may be noble, there is perhaps something to be said for not opting out, for enthusiastically embracing the recording, storing, and sharing potential of present-day media. Ironically, this insight is also shared by President Obama, if one considers his statement (on January 28, 2011) in response to the mass demonstrations across Egypt, referring directly to the Egyptian government's attempts to shut down the country's internet and mobile communication services:
"I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they've taken to interfere with access to the internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century."
Considering the amplifying and accelerating role mobile phones (especially texting) and online social networks play in current processes of social change such as in Iran in 2009, Tunisia in 2010, and Egypt in 2011, it seems as if the future belongs to those clearly not shying away from sharing their life and passions with the world in media. Several news reporters and technology pundits nicknamed these and other major upheavals at the start of the 21st century as a 'Twitter Revolution' (referring to Iran in The Atlantic, 18 June 2010) or 'Facebook Revolution' (referring to Egypt in TIME magazine, 24 January 2011). This in turn prompted numerous commentators to dispute social media's role in causing the widespread protests and calls for change in the Arab world.

From a media life perspective, the debate is not so much about whether our media contribute to or even determine processes of social change. Both positions in such a discussion can be seen examples of deploying media discourse and assigning media qualities to events in the world in order to give them meaning.

Beyond the excerpt above, a couple more observations...

The same media that amplify and potentially accelerate calls for social change are (or can be) instruments of repression and surveillance. Networked media have accelerating and amplifying properties - in particular because of their visibility. We can see each other (and our selves) live, and in that process existing tensions, passions, frustrations, and empathies get emphasized and expressed.

Perhaps the significant problematic is how all this expression is inevitably subsequent to both the material conditions of media (i.e. the structuring properties of the technologies used) as well as their immaterial foundations (for example: what you can and cannot say on Twitter or Facebook because of their Terms of Use and otherwise often arbitrary and generally mainstreamed sensibilities).

Instead of turning to mainstream news media and arrogant academics (myself prominently included) to offer meaningful categories within which to place the messy and complex experiences of struggling human beings, one thing the new visibility (a concept coined by John Thompson) of our media life offers is a chance - and indeed a responsibility - to see the lives of others in great detail, of appreciating their inevitably inconsistent, contradictory, and complicated demands, and of engaging with parts of the world deliberately - even from the relative comfort of our own personal information space.

Peter Sloterdijk argues that this 'media sphere' of ours makes us blind to coexistence. I would say he is right, unless we open our eyes.