How Twitter is like a horse

This article appeared in Solidarity.
Later this month I’ve been invited to debate some of the leading online campaigners in Britain on the role of new media in the revolutions taking place in Middle East.
The organisers are calling it “Activism vs Slacktivism” and no, I don’t understand what that means either.  But I do know the organisations that will be up on the podium with me – including Amnesty International and Oxfam.
I was invited because I’d written something in the Guardian recently challenging the idea that what happened in Egypt could be called “the Twitter revolution”. What I actually wrote was this:
“While the media has reported on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook as revolutionary methods of mobilisation, it was the old-fashioned working class that enabled the pro-democracy movements to flourish.”
Apparently I am now seen as something a techno-skeptic.
It’s an interesting position to be in as for so many years I was regarded by those who knew me as a techno-enthusiast.
And yet my position on these issues has not changed.
In preparation for the debate, I was asked to contribute a paragraph summarizing my view.  This forced me to think about things and to boil down my thoughts to just a few sentences.
And here’s the core of what I said:
“Social media are like the horse that Paul Revere rode the night the American revolution began. Without a fast and robust horse, Revere could never have sparked the rebellion.  What we remember about that night in 1775 is not how effective the horse was at its job, but at the messenger – Revere himself – and the message that he carried.”
In other words, what matters in countries like Egypt and Tunisia are people and their ideas.  Social class matters.  Grassroots organisation matters.  Inequality, exploitation and injustice matter.  These are the things that drive revolutions.
The web, email, social networks, text messages, microblogging are all tools.  They are great tools – but like Paul Revere’s steed, they are only tools.
Revolutions can succeed without them, and revolutions can fail even when these tools are widely available.
It’s true that having cheap, reliable and incredibly fast communications is a real asset to a revolution that is taking place.
But what we are seeing now in parts of the media is a fetishisation of those tools.
This is often the work of journalists and pundits who really don’t have a clue what they are talking about.
For those of us who actually engage in politics, who don’t just observe but know a thing or two about how to mobilize people, all this talk about a “Twitter revolution” comes off as complete tosh.
For full details about the debate, go here: