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Romancing the Connection: The Allure of Democracy Through Social Media

by Ethan Tussey

by Jeremy Carter for IN MEDIA RES

We are just over a year removed from the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Our media spent a lot of their time during those revolutions covering how social networks were allowing citizen activists to spread the word about what had been done to them. For those of us who watched the revolutions unfold on our computers and televisions, the allure of the stories trumpeting the revolutionary power of social media largely came from our desire for a sense of justice in the world. The all-seeing connected eye of the web promised to uncover the suffering of the voiceless oppressed, and the stories about uprisings in the Middle East struck hopeful tones about this new power individual citizens had to illuminate the world.

Langdon Winner, in critiquing the proponents of the "computer revolution" of the 1980’s, wrote that "Computer romanticism is merely the latest version of the nineteenth and twentieth century that has always expected to generate freedom, democracy, and justice through sheer material abundance." If Winner was right in his critique of faith in the democractic power of the connected personal computer that was so vogue in the 1980’s, can his criticisms be fairly applied to our new love, connectivity romanticism? In many ways, our new romance is a faster, more vocal version of the love of democratic computing that began thirty years ago. We still fall into the belief that there is, in Winner’s words, “an automatic, positive link between knowledge and power, especially power in a social or political sense.”

Does focusing on the channels through which injustice is revealed actually  push aside a more useful dialogue about the roots of the injustices which provoke and sustain a revolution? Perhaps one could argue that stories age very quickly in a news world built on hourly updates, and the social media “angle” is simply one way of prolonging the life of a story that would otherwise fade from our memories too quickly. Such an argument still assumes that there is significant value in having an awareness of what’s happening in the world, however vague. We can't measure the democratic power of a few individuals with deep knowledge of a conflict against a multitude of people with a vague but constant awareness of an injustice, but I doubt that there can ever be such a thing as a shallow revolution.

The face of Egypt's revolution

CNN story

from The face of Egypt's revolution (2011)
Creator: CNN
Posted by Ethan Tussey