In the new Tank magazine, I talk to the founder of Demotix, Turi Munthe, about today’s news ecology and how, during the Egyptian revolution, Mubarak made a major mediaeval mistake. Here is an excerpt:
SB: Is it too easy to turn what we are seeing in the Middle East into a triumph for social-media technology over long-term historicity?
TM: By enormous good fortune, I happened to read Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 in early January this year. Two big take-away messages for me were, one: revolutions have the kind of failure rates of high-end restaurants, and if they ever do succeed it is all in the long game, and two: revolutions have always been contagious. 1830 was a pretty much continuous, European-wide explosion, and they did it without YouTube. So, caution. And caution also for the way these “technological/Facebook/Twitter revolutions” have been framed. No doubt, the fact that millions of young Arabs all have cell phones and Twitter accounts has made them more recognisable, and therefore more attractive, to the spectating West – some describe this as the famous “Arab street” finally getting a face – but there’s more than a hint of narcissism in the “Facebook topples Mubarak” story; as if the revolutions in the region were in fact the triumph of Californian values over despotism.
SB: Has social media played any part?
TM: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that social media has had a foundational role in what’s been happening, both in terms of news gathering and in terms of the actual protests. The theme here is flatness. Social media allows mass movements to coalesce without all the old pyramid structures required for past mobilisations. Nobody led these movements because nobody needed to. There are huge advantages here: when Mubarak, a week into the Egyptian revolution, declared that he and Omar Suleiman were meeting with opposition leaders, we all laughed – there were none; there was nobody to co-opt! But the downside is that it’s far harder to formulate policy thereafter. I’ve heard of a number of attempts by some of the Tunisian opposition groups to Wiki-write and Google-doc their proposed manifestos and constitutions, but we wait to see how effective that will be.