In a memorable line from the recent film The Social Network, which charts the genesis of the social networking site Facebook, the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, explains to his partner that even he doesn’t know exactly what Facebook is yet. Social networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook, and most recently Twitter, have often been derided as the ultimate timewasters for the ‘Net Generation’. Popular wisdom has it that users of such sites indulge almost exclusively in pointless social interaction, whiling away hours posting photos and comments designed to make themselves look good and worrying about how many ‘friends’ – most of whom they hardly even know – they have accumulated.
Worse still, conventional wisdom has it that the artificiality of this new form of ‘socialising’ gets in the way of young people developing the traditional social skills needed to get on with people in the real world. According to this view, social networks are little more than a potentially unhealthy distraction for timewasters, voyeurs and narcissists. Certainly statistics are available to back up such a depiction: large numbers of Facebook’s 500-or-so million users spend, apparently compulsively, several hours logged on to the site every day; meanwhile, 50 per cent of Twitter traffic, in the form of ‘tweets’, is generated by just 0.5 per cent of subscribers to the network.
And yet, despite the tendency to pigeonhole activity on Facebook and Twitter as, at best, unproductive, these sites have recently started to play significant roles in the unlikely spheres of global politics, popular campaigns and even disaster relief, prompting a re-examination of what the social networking phenomenon potentially represents for many aspects of society. Can Facebook cause revolutions? Can Twitter save lives?
The so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’, which by now has toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt and caused widespread unrest throughout North Africa and the Middle East, was triggered late last year by the self-immolation and subsequent death of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor driven to desperation by harassment from a municipal inspector in his home town of Sidi Bouzid. But if Bouazizi’s suicide was the spark that lit the touch paper of discontent over decades of autocratic dictatorship and misrule in the region, then it is social media that has since fanned the flames of protest – so much so that even far-away China has restricted its citizens’ access to the internet over the past weeks and pre-emptively rounded up known dissidents in large numbers.
Technologically literate and creative activists in the Arab world have been able to organise marches and demonstrations remotely, using the blank canvas of social networking sites to announce dates and sites for protests. Furthermore, using mobile communication technologies such as Twitter, activists can report to the outside world – either fellow activists or impartial observers – in real time. These tools have facilitated a decentralised communications network providing immediate, street-level information based on which ‘netizens’, both local and global, are able to organise, adapt and respond to situations more flexibly and faster than those authorities trying to control them.
Solana Larsen is Managing Editor of Global Voices Online, a hub for this emergent form of activist communication and networking. She describes Global Voices as a community of people who work together highlighting citizen media: a grassroots online news agency that covers world events through the eyes of bloggers. Larsen thinks that the emergent sense of solidarity engendered by networking tools such as Facebook, both within and without activist groups, may prove to be their most significant contribution: at the same time as being used to communicate instantly with the outside world, these sites can also serve as a kind of internal organising tool for honing opinions and formulating strategies. Says Ms Larsen: ‘There’s a feeling that if you encounter some kind of injustice, or express something that runs counter to their regime or government, then you’ll be heard and people will act to protect you.’
Ultimately, she argues, this phenomenon is not so much about specific networking technologies as about the higher levels of involvement and communication to which people now aspire – and the responsibilities that these aspirations impose on those in power: ‘You have people in Sudan, for example, people who participated in the protests [ongoing at the time of writing] saying, “We have Facebook, we have Twitter – we know what we should have, what rights we have, we know what we should expect…” None of these protest movements have been about ideology, left-wing or right-wing; people have simply been asking for human rights and accountability – holding their governments accountable.’ Furthermore, she expects that this sense of expectation will carry over into how people engage with their governments after the heady days of revolution: ‘I see a lot of people thinking very creatively about transparent government, about the accountability that people have come to expect online translating into the real world.’
Another very real area in which virtual social media have had an unexpected impact is that of disaster relief. In the weeks following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, new ways of assisting disaster relief teams on the ground sprang up, with those from the international community and Haitian diaspora keen to help in any way they could. Using an open-source online platform known as Crowdmap together with free SMS services, a collaborative effort between up to 1,500 online volunteers was able to provide emergency relief in real time by accurately directing relief teams to where they were most needed. Communities or individuals in distress would text ‘Mission 4636’ with a request for assistance. Crowdmap was then used to plot the frequency and intensity of these texts – which were simultaneously being translated from Haitian Creole into English by volunteer teams of translators in situation rooms in San Francisco, Montreal, Washington DC, Boston, London and Geneva – on an online map. Aid agencies were thus able to determine those areas in most urgent need of assistance, and the type of assistance needed, and instruct their relief teams on the ground accordingly.
The process sprang up organically, but all involved were quick to spot its potential as a new, cost-effective tool in disaster relief management. The UN Foundation and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have produced a report, ‘Disaster Relief 2.0’, on how the model might be refined in conjunction with disaster relief agencies for use in future disaster scenarios. As Jaroslav Valůch from Ushahidi, the developer of Crowdmap, puts it: ‘In a crisis situation, affected populations are now not necessarily only victims that should be waiting to be helped and assisted from outside – they are becoming an incredible resource and partner that can directly participate in emergency response by helping to increase situational awareness and understanding of local specifics. This is a major shift.’
While social networking platforms are unlikely to completely shed their reputations as havens for the indolent anytime soon, increasingly their use is extending beyond the merely recreational to the potentially revolutionary. The team at Internews, the NGO which co-ordinated the various teams involved in the Haiti operation, is opening a centre to research and capture the potential of digital technologies and innovative approaches to other areas. No one really knows how or where social media will be harnessed in the future, but recent developments may give you a different perspective next time you see a young person logging on to Facebook!