Tech and Social Movements: Beyond 'Did Twitter Cause the Tunisian Uprising?'

One of the least important things the uprising in Tunisia is going to do is add more empirical fuel to the long-running debate about the role played by digital social media in fostering political and social change. In the grand scheme of things, what could be less important than the way a real-world revolution proves or disproves the theses put forward about the Internet by a subset of very smart public intellectuals? Nevertheless: expect the "what does Tunisia mean for the future of social media" debate to rage for the next few days on an RSS or Twitter feed near you.

Of course, we aren't lacking in deeply thought positions on this topic. Clay Shirky has written eloquently on these questions in the pages of Foreign Affairs, Evgeny Morozov has positioned himself well as a sort of "anti-Shirky," and Malcolm Gladwell has stirred the pot in the manner that only Malcolm Gladwell can do. I look forward to hearing more from all them in the coming days.

When the debate does pick up again, though, I wouldn't mind seeing a few new wrinkles added into the mix. What all of the above writers share, I would argue, is, first, a notion of collective action overly-indebted to definitions of action and coordination provided by economics, and (second) a somewhat a-historical focus in digital technology. One of the problems with the debate as it is currently structured is that other academic disciplines, particularly sociology, have largely stopped asking questions about the relationship between the media and social movements. Indeed, sociology has largely stopped asking questions about the media at all. (I'm generalizing wildly here, of course, but as evidence I would point you toward the cogently argued and well-titled article by Jefferson Pooley and Elihu Katz, "Why American Sociology Abandoned Mass Communication Research.") A second problem with the current debate lies in the fact that more complex theorizing about the nature of technological artifacts has yet to penetrate the mainstream debates over the roles played by technology in political protest.

There are, of course, exceptions. When it comes to deep and important thinking about media and social movements from a sociological perspective I'd point you toward work by Francesca Polletta and Edwin Amenta at UC Irvine, W. Lance Bennett's work on political communication and protest, and especially research by Andrew Chadwick, and John Downing. In his discussion of "organizational repertoires" and their relationship to media, just as one example, Chadwick draws on a lengthy tradition of thought in classic social movement research aimed at understanding the role "repertoires play in sustaining collective identity. They are not simply neutral tools to be adopted at will, but come to shape what it means to be a participant in a political organization. Values shape repertoires of collective action, which in turn shape the kind adoption of organizational forms."

In short, a primary advantage provided by a core sociological perspective on social movements is that they bring values and culture back into our conversation, problematizing notions of what collective action even means in the first place.

In thinking about our understanding of digital technologies and the long history of technologically enabled (or hampered) political protest, I would love to see more work done on the way that audio cassettes impacted the Iranian Revolution, what, exactly, samizdat was from a material perspective, what photocopiers "did" in Eastern Europe, and so on. There may be work on this that I'm not aware of; if there is, I'd love to hear about it.

One way to gain insight into the nature of digital technology is to put it in historical context. To his credit, Morozov has argued that one problem with the notion of the "Twitter revolution" is that it draws too many parallels between samizdat and tweeting. One way to correct this, of course, is to be less simplistic in our analyses of the role played by media and technology in the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

I'm sure that the comments section will now be inundated by claims that I am totally wrong; that there is work of this kind "here" and "there" and "over there." Fantastic. If we must argue about the role played by social media in the Tunisian revolution, than there's no time like the present to start broadening the conversation.

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C.W. Anderson teaches journalism and media sociology at the College of Staten Island (CUNY). He has also been a visiting fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project and a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation. He occasionally writes for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab.

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