Modern media practices have evolved significantly from their traditional forms, with the key concepts of this ‘new media’ being participation and interactivity (O’Reilly 2005:1) (Anderson 2007). Society exists in a digital age, where everything in our lives is spread out across as much media as possible and this media is shaped by everyone. Much of this media exists or relates to the Internet and the ‘online world,’ as Brücks, Mehnert, Prommer and Räder (2008: 2) confirm in their statement that “the Internet is part of our everyday life” for the reason that “we do the same in the Internet as in real life, probably in a […] more efficient, faster [and] cheaper [way].” As such, communication using the Internet as a channel is becoming increasingly popular. Social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are examples of communication tools available online. With the popularity of social networking sites on the rise, there effect on society is in question. Is social media merely a vehicle for new forms of communication, or do they hold promise for new kinds of social movements creating social change?
In a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell (2010), “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” he poses an interesting question–will social networking make an important contribution to social movements and social change? By comparing social networking to the civil rights movement, which, as a social movement, created significant social change, he argues that movement had strong ties among individuals and among hierarchical organizations, which the social networking movement does not. He argues that these events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade and changed the face of America and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.
Gladwell argues that the “platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with.” He says that there is strength in weak ties because our acquaintances, not our friends, are our greatest source of new ideas and information. Gladwell argues that social networks are effective at increasing participation by lessening he level of motivation that participation requires; “Face book activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” Gladwell contends that in order to make substantial social change you need a hierarchy and that social media buzz doesn’t qualify.
Recent events in the Arab World have been called ‘Facebook revolutions’ – but can social networking overthrow a government? In the opening months of 2011, the world witnessed a series of tumultuous events in North Africa and the Middle East that soon became known as the Arab uprisings. What is striking about them is not only their historical momentousness and stunning speed of succession across so many countries, but also the different ways in which media and communications became inextricably infused inside them. In January 2011, protesters in Tunisia and Egypt utilized the social network sites, Facebook and Twitter to organize protests that saw the removal of their respective leaders from power, however. It is wrong, to suggest that social networks are responsible for the civil uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and other African and Middle East nations; however they do provide the means for individuals to disseminate information and to mobilize (Ghannam: 2011).
In the very initial phase of Tunisia uprising, it was the mobile phone with a video of a young man who’s humiliation by the regime of President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali persuaded him to set himself on fire, his action sparked the protests that led to the president’s downfall. “Without media coverage it is unlikely that an important problem will either enter the arena of public discourse or become part of political issues….” (Cited in Castells 2009: 16).
The creation and rise of the Internet and the technological advancement in the mobile industry has been a boon to social change mobilizing masses and enabling change, without having to depend on corporate mass media. The Internet with its transnational many-to-many communication facility offers a revolutionary potential for social movements to go online and circumvent the official messages of political and commercial organizations and the traditional media, by speaking directly to the citizens of the world, The Internet and other new media, such as mobile phones, have made possible, “a network of places or nodal points being connected around one common, simultaneous social practice” (Crossley 2002: 79). Furthermore the use of e-mail, mailing lists, websites, online forums and other online applications provide powerful media tools for co-coordinating the activity of often physically dispersed activists seeking social change. “However, before we rush to proclaim that the Internet has permanently changed human behavior, more tangible evidence is required over a longer period of time in order to demonstrate this point, especially given that the Internet as we know it only emerged in the 1990’s” (Hopper 2007: 69). In line of this, Lovink calls the Internet “an indifferent bystander (…) [Which] doesn’t lend itself easily as a revolutionary tool”. He argues that what the digital media, especially the Internet, which create social networks aren’t able to effect social change in any substantive way. He writes “Tag, Connect, Friend, Link, Share, and Tweet. These are not terms that signal any form of collective intelligence, creativity or networked socialism”.
As the Arab uprisings continues to unfold and touch regions well beyond the Arab world. This new phase in local history is the product of long-term political and economical repression and dissatisfaction endured generation after generation with no end in sight. This dissatisfaction giving birth and growth to the movement matches perfectly the motives of a social change according to Blumer (in Crossley: 2007). It’s the feeling despair and dissatisfaction in oppressive and corrupted governments that’s been boiling for so long and finally erupted. It started as a youth movements and ended up to engulf all facets of society with the notion of opposing these oppressive regimes and for life political system in its totality. Here the analysis of Tarrow according to Crossley (2007) makes perfect sense and justifies the unification of citizens against the political elite and their actions. Citizens join forces, reaching the point of no return in order to make a difference and down a privileged enterprise that represented decades of suffering and social injustice
Of course there is no denial on the role that is played by social networks and its effect on social change and this role should be highlighted and we therefore should give social networking credit for operating as a mobilizing tool and facilitating the events that trigger social change, however, whether it’s in the civil right movement or the Arab Uprisings, the people were ready, the political moment came, and people acted.