It is becoming inevitable that any discussion of revolution and the Arab Spring will at some point end in talk of social media. The tendency is to talk about how this technology is new, powerful, and important for collective action. What is often missing from these conversations is a nuanced understanding of what social media really is, and how it really works. We will best be served if we add the human element back into the discussion of the technology and its use.
Social media is a powerful platform for creating networks. As many writers on the subject will point out, social media does allow for the creation of networks amongst people, many of whom do not know each other. With that acknowledgment, we need to go one step further and remember that not all networks created by social media will lead to collective action. The effectiveness of a network is reliant on the actors who create it. Networks are most effective when formed by highly motivated actors around principled ideas and values. The quality of the network is the responsibility of the user, not the technology.
Social media is also being heralded as a communication wizard. Many people speak of how it allows everyone to have a voice, to express themselves, and to organize based on shared ideals. Yes, social media allows for these things. But it is a vehicle for delivering the message, not the creator of the message. Effective communication in a time of unrest relies on messages that are clear, purposeful, thought out, and conveyed over long periods of time. It is the user, not the tool, which is responsible for the purposeful and meaningful creation of the message. Without a highly conscientious and motivated user, the tool is simply a vehicle for noise.
It is acknowledged that the roles social media play in unrest are far more complicated than just networks and communication. And while we as a field struggle to stay on top of the complexity, we are best served if we begin to add the human element back in to the functionality of the tool.