People, Not Facebook, Twitter, Are Heroes of Revolutions

Revolutionary movements happen because people show up.

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I sort of understand why people like Facebook and other so-called social networking sites. They offer a convenient way to keep up with people who live far away, or whom one doesn’t make time to see very often. Perhaps best of all, the sites offer a way to find long-lost friends or connect with people with similar interests. And while the sites encourage a self-centeredness--witness those whose "updates" include utterly inconsequential play-by-plays of getting off a plane and collecting luggage at baggage claim--it’s still a step up from having to listen to someone next to you give those reports, loudly, on a cell phone.

But can we please stop at the deification of Facebook and Twitter as the new heroes of revolutionary movements around the world?

The sites are organizing tools, and are undeniably great at that. They can connect people who otherwise might be afraid to seek each other out to join in a courageous movement for change. In my childhood, we had phone trees--you had a list, and you called the next person on the list, and that person called the next one in line. It was primitive, and had its inherent flaws; it took just one person to drop the ball to make the whole idea fall apart. Facebook and Twitter and the like are far more efficient at organizing people, no doubt about it. [See a roundup of this month's political cartoons.]

But you still have to show up.

Take a look at any movement for change, be it a revolution or an election, and they happened because people showed up. They showed up at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. They showed up in Tahrir Square in Cairo. They showed up (in huge numbers, among young people) in the 2008 presidential elections. The turnout was lower in the 2010 midterm elections (as is typical for off-year elections) and turnout was abysmally low in last year’s primaries, especially among Democratic primary voters. But the victories, importantly, went to those who showed up. [Check out editorial cartoons about the Middle East uprisings.]

It’s important, too, to note that in revolutions against dictatorial regimes around the world, it has been cities that hosted the definitive uprisings. Here in the United States, we are experiencing a long-brewing backlash against the cities that drove the industrial revolution and built this country. They are derided as crime filled, corrupt, dirty, and demanding of federal resources for such luxuries as public transportation. The rust belt cities have taken a particular hit; Detroit is suffering from massive unemployment and deterioration. Its only bright spot of late in the unofficial battle between old economy cities and new economy areas was the Detroit Red Wings’ sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs (though I wish the Red Wings would tone down those home-ice, head-to-toe red uniforms. They look like department store Santas). Detroit is starting to look like a ghost town, and it’s alarming how little people seem to care. Let the cities die, and we lose a key part of the small-d democratic infrastructure. And Facebook won’t be able to fill the void.

  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East protests.
  • See photos of protests in the Middle East.
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