Is The Twitter Revolution Dead?

Posted: Apr 1 2014, 1:42pm CDT | by , Updated: Apr 1 2014, 1:46pm CDT, in News | Technology News

Is The Twitter Revolution Dead?
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More than two weeks ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan banned Twitter. Within minutes of the event, #TurkeyblockedTwitter began on the service. Journalists and citizens alike mocked the government ban by logging onto the service through a different DNS or service.

When I checked in with him last week, Ryan Holmes, chief executive officer at Hootsuite, a platform to manage multiple social media accounts, told me that users from Turkey on their service had tripled. According to him, the service saw similar spikes in usage when Venezuela (another country that has been wracked by protests), Egypt, and Iran cut off access to social media sites. “Should our current domain names becomes blocked by government in Turkey, we will unlock other Hootsuite domain names to ensure traffic,” he told me. The number of user requests from Turkey on Tor, an encrypted network that uses a different DNS, also increased.

Despite the outcry, however, Erdogan’s party won recent local elections. According to reports, the victory was largely due to votes from the working class, who are without social media access and live away from major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara.

After a start that enthralled the world (and was powered by social media), the Arab Spring revolution brought Islamists to power in Egypt during democratic protests. Another set of protests later, the Islamists ceded power to the military. Libya, another country that used social media to power its Arab Spring, has dissolved into chaos and civil war.

All of this makes one wonder about the power of social media.

Is It Just About The Tweets?

Social media is a massive improvement in communication channels: it connects and distributes information quickly.

In a 2010 essay written right after the Iranian revolution, noted New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell provided two reasons to explain the mechanics of a revolution powered by social media.

The first one is related to the different meanings of participation in an online and offline context. According to Gladwell, social networks were effective at increasing participation levels because they decreased the amount of motivation required to participate.

The simple act of retweeting and reposting (which can be accomplished with a swipe or mouse click, depending on the device you are using) can be an act of participation. In the offline world, there is an enormous amount of “friction” (as most engineers here in Silicon Valley like to refer to it) to participation. Physical presence in the form of travel to the protest site is required.

The second reason is the complexity of revolutions. They require coordination and organization. Those are complex concepts in a software design model, which focuses on simplicity and hides complexity beneath a set of simple user actions.

Gladwell forgot to mention other factors that contribute to a revolution.

In an increasingly connected world, international support and condemnation can determine the success or failure of revolutions. This is the reason that monarchy in Bahrain escaped international censure despite widespread killings and bloodshed against its own people. On the other hand, France readily and openly helped Libyan fighters against Gaddafi’s forces. Although it has battled with protestors, Russia’s support of Syria has helped the country avoid blanket international condemnation.

The demographics of Internet access also play an important role in powering social media. With approximately ten percent of its population connected to Twitter, Turkey is the eighth biggest country on Twitter. However, that figure is still less than eighty-five percent of the country’s population that does not have Internet access. More than thirty percent of the Saudi Arabian population, part of one of the most oppressive regimes on earth, is on Twitter. Clearly, social media does not always translate into free speech.

The Taiwan Case

“Social media is used to overthrow governments or get them elected; social media connects us when reaching out seems impossible and it can be a lifeline in times of disaster,” Holmes wrote to me last week.

The first part of the statement might be a bit of a stretch.

Over 100,000 people protested against Taiwan’s trade pact with China this week but there was barely a ripple on social media. There was no discussion of oppression of speech or citizens. Twitter did not explode with hashtags mocking or protesting the government.

Social media can bring strangers together. Whether that meeting instigates a revolution, however, is the moot point. For, just like trending topics and hashtags of Twitter, revolutions only have a finite lifespan.

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