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Tunisia: Can We Please Stop Talking About 'Twitter Revolutions'?

While the tear gas was still hanging in the streets of Tunis, many pundits were quick to christen Tunisia’s revolution. Andrew Sullivan has asked (again) whether it’s a Twitter Revolution. Elizabeth Dickinson, among others, speculated in “Foreign Policy” that it might be a “WikiLeaks revolution.” Anonymous, the online activists who recently attacked targets perceived to be against WikiLeaks, claimed it as their own after their DDOS attacks on various government targets. For cyber-utopians, the unfolding events in Tunisia and the role of social media, was a cause célèbre, a knockdown to the naysayer Malcolm Gladwell. (See my critique of Gladwell’s argument here.)

First off, it looks like social media did have an important role to play here. An estimated 18 percent of Tunisia’s population is on Facebook and, left unblocked by the government, it was a place where many Tunisians shared updates pertaining to the protests. As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, the video-sharing sites Dailymotion and YouTube were also important. And with a paucity of on-the-ground media coverage, Twitter excelled as a medium in getting the message out, in driving mainstream media coverage, and in connecting activists on the ground with multipliers in the West.

Revolutions, of course, are notoriously slippery customers to evaluate. As Juan Cole writes, "Revolutions are always multiple revolutions happening simultaneously." It's difficult enough looking at revolutions from years ago and attributing relative importance to each of the many factors, let alone when people are still on the streets and chaos reigns. When you look at the complex mix of factors in Tunisia -- the economy, a frustrated over-educated, unemployed middle class, the trade unions, rampant censorship and government corruption, and, yes, social media -- establishing a single cause for the revolution, especially for something as marginal for most Tunisians as WikiLeaks, seems preposterous. If there is a need to apply a single cause and moniker for the events in Tunisia, it would make as much sense to call this the “Mohamed Bouazizi Revolution,” after the man who set himself on fire a few weeks ago to protest the government. But that too would be overly simplistic.

As the events in Tunisia continue to unfold they will be ripe for study by academics and experts, but in so quickly applying our theories of social mobilization, or our frameworks of revolutionary change, we become blind to what is really happening. As Evgeny Morozov’s makes clear in his recent book, by over-focusing on the technology, we lose sight of what’s really important.

The problem is that we so desperately want there to be a Twitter revolution. In a 24-hour news cycle, we don’t just seek instant news but instant answers, clear explanations and narratives that can be book-ended with events and wrapped up into a three-word headline. At first it is just a catchy headline beloved of journalists in need of page views, but quickly that moniker becomes a narrative, an established truth that is often wildly divergent with the reality on the ground.

In our search for a single cause, we're much more likely to settle on an "new technology" explanation rather than something as dull as a great many of the participants were unemployed or wearing socks. Not only do "Twitter revolution" explanations mean more page views, but they fulfill some deterministic urge within us -- the dual promises of technology and modernity. There was as much breathless enthusiasm about the power of the telegraph to do good as there is the Internet. In Tom Standage’s wonderful book on the growth of the telegraph he says these reactions are amplified by what he terms "chronocentricity," "the egotism that ones own generation is poised on the very cusp of history."

More than that, Twitter revolution narratives are popular because rather than being about Tunisia, they are often really about ourselves. When we glorify the role of social media we are partly glorifying ourselves. Some of us are not only praising the tools we know and love and use every day, but also the tools we build and have stakes in. To proclaim a Twitter revolution is almost a form of intellectual colonialism, stealthy and mildly delusional: We project our world, our values, and concerns onto theirs and we shouldn’t. We use Twitter and so must they. In our rush to christen the uprising, did we think to ask Tunisians what they wanted to call their revolution?

I've been to Tunisia a few times, the last time to a town called Tabarka close to the Algerian border. I went with my wife, lured by the promise of a jazz festival and a decent-enough hotel. It was a slightly unnerving, windswept place, with a decayed colonial grandeur, very different to the more modern resorts along the coast. In the hotel there was a gym, but the ancient machines were covered with dust. A Jacuzzi, but with no water. A lot was broken. The hotel reminded me of the scene in Empire of the Sun where the young Jim comes back to his family’s abandoned home at the end of the war. A reminder of past lives, as if the wrong people (in this case sun-seeking Eastern European tourists) had been transplanted there.

With the hotel being no great shakes, we often wandered into the town. From traveling a little bit in the Arab world, I was used to seeing a lot of men on the streets. But I had never seen anything like Tabarka. With the tourism industry in that part of the country on the wane, it was full of angry young men with no jobs.

People hissed at us in the streets (my wife was careful to dress appropriately); a boy in a group of children made a throat-cutting sign to us when we walked out of the town to visit a fort. People made pig noises at us. While it wasn’t particularly pleasant, it wasn't the end of the world. (I’ve been much more fearful in London pubs at closing time and many other Tunisians were lovely to us during our stay there.)

I’m not making excuses for unpleasantness, but if I lived in Tabarka without any chance of work under a corrupt regime and saw Western tourists throwing their money around, I might feel the same. Nor do I claim to know anything about Tunisia because I’ve been there on holiday several times. But when, as a tourist, you can feel that street-level anger and aggression, and see the hopelessness many of the town’s young men felt in trying to sell a few pieces of pottery to a few lousy tourists, then it does seem rather ridiculous and narcissistic to talk about the role of WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

So when I hear about Tunisians rising up, I think of the men of Tabarka, and hope that they'll get a better deal and a government they finally deserve.