The challenges of organizing a mass social movement are in part those of communication: How do you coordinate large groups of people? How do you inspire anger against a regime? Social media can help with these problems, by spreading logistical information or videos of state brutality. But the problems of designing a new government and governing are different. What institutions should we have? Which rights should we protect in our constitution? How do we ensure fair and safe voting? How do we exorcise corruption? It's not clear that social media can help with those sorts of questions.
There are, of course, plenty of efforts to use social media to help improve governing. Here in America, the Obama administration has, for example, created its own e-petitions site, where people can create their own petitions and the White House promises to review any that receive more than 25,000 signatures in 30 days. But, if it's any indication of this project's success so far, one of the most popular petitions right now is a request to "actually take these petitions seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening." New York City is also using some online tools as part of an ambitious participatory budgeting effort.
Another prominent example but more successful of an attempt to adapt social media for better governing is the open-source project Ushahidi, begun in Kenya, that enables real-time mapping and coordination for post-disaster relief. It has been used in places such as Haiti, Japan, and the Congo. But while it has proved life-saving in those situations, that purpose is fundamentally different than the questions Egypt now faces. Egypt is not trying to run a government program; it's trying to figure out what kind of government to have.
Perhaps the best example of a country trying to use social media for something on that scale is Iceland's efforts to crowdsource a new constitution, which would then have to be approved by an elected body. By "crowdsource" Iceland meant not a wiki where everyone could contribute but a process by which a constitutional committee solicited feedback online and posted updates on YouTube. A draft of the proposal was released in July but is still awaiting approval.
These projects are all experiments, ones we can hopewill open up new ways for governing to be more representative, fair, and honest. But as of yet they are in their earliest stages. And even with well-designed tools, e-governing faces great challenges in places where computer literacy is not widespread.
The point is this: Revolution is a completely different thing than state building. Revolutions may be fed by social media's power to fuel emotional response and organizing, but state-building does not require a fervor. It requires smart decision-making, leadership, and perhaps even idealism and vision, things no tool in the world can provide.
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Rebecca J. Rosen
is a senior editor at The Atlantic
, where she oversees the Family and Education sections. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly