Continuing my exploration into events outside of the immediate domain of user experience design, I recently attended a panel discussion at New York University that examined the role of social tools in the Middle East and North African uprisings underway in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere.
The discussion, Social Media: Social Uprising, was moderated by Helga Tawii-Souri, an assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU, and the panelists consisted of author Clay Shirky, Arab and Muslim issues expert Mona Eltahawy, and WNYC/NPR’s “On the Media” producer Sarah Abdurrahman.
At the onset of the event, Mr. Shirky was quick to establish he was tired of hearing the mainstream media label the uprisings the Facebook Revolution or the Social Media Revolution, noting these channels are simply tools and countries like Syria are still engaged in unrest without these social tools.
But diving into the unique characteristics of these revolutions without acknowledging the role of social communication channels is also folly; after all, these social tools are disrupting fundamental aspects of political power and control: knowledge, access, influence, and proximity.
Shirky rhetorically asked the panel what are the characteristics of the insurgents’ social tools? (sidebar: Shirky was using the term ‘insurgent’ to simply represent a person rebelling against the current government and did not imply the heavily negative connotation of the word when used to refer to violent anti-American terrorists).
Shirky answered his own question by claiming the most significant characteristics or these social tools were the ability to:
- Synchronize publicly around shared goals (noting that every autocrat works to desynchronize communication)
- Coordination of action
- Documentation of results (most autocrats still don’t want to kill people on camera)
The panel noted that much of the above characteristics were initially experienced in blogs beginning around 2004 and reaching significant adoption around 2006 by challenging state-run media that only covered stories that stayed on message or theme.
Whereas blogs disrupted how news was broadcast to groups as reported by an individual, the social tools of today can effectively break down even that bottleneck of information by giving everyone a voice. However, reach and audience is no less important: such voices have to be heard by others outside their immediate network, as the panel noted “if everyone [at Tiananmen Square] is tweeting to everyone else at Tiananmen Square, it just doesn’t work”.
The panel also examined how social tools are also similar to “an arms race” between the establishment and the insurgents, citing how some governments have created Facebook groups and organized events claiming to be part of the opposition, only to round up all the attendees and place them under arrest.
The resulting paranoia and distrust could have been a fascinating discussion into the networks of both the deceptive establishment and the revolutionaries.
Specifically, could network analysis identify who was a mole versus who was authentic? Could an government spy’s behavior and social interaction within rebel social structures tip his hand to his motive? Was the spy emphasizing connecting to bridges in rebel networks? Or people more at the hub of the rebel organization?
I would also have been interested to see how other social interactions were influenced by perceived trust such as what information was told to whom, and of course how. Was Twitter, a public channel, used for requesting supplies to a camp, but Facebook or other channel used more for critical private exchanges of information?
In addition, often in product strategy, one of the more difficult but significant tasks is to imagine and build for how your product or service may be used for alternative purposes other than your primary business goal, audience, or feature-set. Certainly the leadership teams at Twitter, Facebook, or other toolmakers weren’t taking into account every possible use of their respective terms of service agreements.
It’s good policy to require groups have points of contact with real names, especially to dissuade nefarious hate groups (or worse) from organizing via their platforms. But such details can also mean life and death consequences for rebels organizing against totalitarian regimes. How can corporate policy enable some and not others? When is an activist organization blessed as official, and how is it managed?
The panel discussion was a worthwhile overview into understanding the role social tools can play in social uprising as communication channels. Though I would have enjoyed deeper discussion into the social structures of the people using the tools instead of just how the tools are being used, it was an enlightening experience to be exposed to discussions of social tools that weren’t exclusively tied to my day to day work.