So my argument here is not about whether Twitter “caused” the revolution or merely “facilitated” it as the most efficient means of communication at hand. (GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram wrote, “So was what happened in Tunisia a Twitter revolution? Not any more than what happened in Poland in 1989 was a telephone revolution.” Clay Shirky responded in comments, “No one believes social media causes otherwise complacent citizens to become angry enough to take to the streets. It’s a convenient straw men for the skeptics, because, as an obviously ridiculous narrative, it’s easy to refute.”)
Rather, my question is about why the press has been focusing so much on this narrative in its coverage of this complex story; why, in the first day or two after the situation heated up in Tunisia enough to enter the American mainstream consciousness, this narrative was the dominant one, echoed back and forth online throughout the past week. I don’t know the answer, but I’ll offer a few ideas:
Because the medium becomes the message. Social media is a part of the story, but it is also the way that we—meaning bloggers and reporters sitting in cubicles far away from the action—have a window into the story. We’ve been trained in the past few years to monitor Twitter all day for news tips, and then to use it to drive Web traffic to the stories we write. We’ve got social media on the brain. So when we see something happening on Twitter, it feels that much more important. Twitter is our conduit of information, and it often becomes the story. As Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy put it on PBS NewsHour on Monday night,
But it’s very important to remember that Twitter didn’t cause the Tunisian revolution. Rather, it gave us a front-row seat to what happened .
Because it’s an easy story to report and write. All over the Web we saw powerful quotes about the significance of bloggers in the Tunisian revolution from bloggers in Tunisia. This is not to say that bloggers are not a significant force for change in Tunisia. But they are surely the easiest people to get in touch with when a reporter is looking for sources for a story. Likewise, this “social media creates change” narrative is also the easiest one to grasp for those who don’t have any background knowledge of the particular history and culture of Tunisia. When news breaks, it’s our impulse to fit it into the framework of the world we already know. (“This is just like Moldova!” or “This is just like Iran!”) We should be wary of frames that fit too easily around interchangeable countries and cultures. We should push ourselves to go beyond the first impulse, stick to the facts, and if we aren’t experts, find those who are. In fact, this story is yet another argument for the necessity of foreign bureaus.
Because it’s an easy story to read. Maybe editors were afraid that readers won’t be interested in the collapse of the government in a relatively small, Arab, Muslim country in Africa, a country that most people weren’t thinking much about before a man set himself on fire. But fresh-faced kids with smartphones taking down an oppressive tyrant? That’s a heartwarming, America-friendly story everyone can get behind! Jeff Neumann on Gawker had a smart take:
We should stop trying to fit the events in Tunisia into a Western context. It simplifies things, but it also overlooks the real forces of change at work in the North African country. This isn’t about Facebook, or Wikileaks, or Twitter — it’s about the people of Tunisia being fed up with decades of marginalization at the hands of a Western-backed kleptocracy, and taking charge of their own future. [ ] Did social media have an effect on events in Tunisia? Undoubtedly, yes. Is this a social media revolution? Absolutely not.