Social Networks and the New Art of Revolution: What Next?

Protester or Hipster (are the two mutually exclusive?)-- this is a question that
the newly created Tahrir Hipsters website seems to pose.
More than a week after the toppling of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and it seems that the role of social networking has taken center stage in conversations about protest movements in a way that nobody had really predicted. Like many of you, I too became caught up and engrossed with the rapidly changing events, doing my part to help circulate information via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to keep the events on the ground prominently within the news of the day. Activists, many young students themselves, also did an amazing job reaching out to the mainstream press to help keep the information fresh and relevant. Last week, the young Google executive Wael Ghonim gave several interviews thanking the social networking sites, especially Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, for aiding the liberation of Egypt for its massive youth population.

One of many images showing crowds in Tahrir Square thanking social
networking sites for spreading news of the protests
(image courtesy of New York Times)
A key dynamic of this shared information came through the posting of images and videos of what was actually taking place at Tahrir Square, especially once the violence subsided and everyday people came to join the massive and growing demonstration against the Egyptian government. Incredibly, the will to protest was quickly joined to the will to make art. As many of the images suggest, the role of  artists and the freedom of expression through creativity was yet another right being exercised by the people as part of the free flow of information. As one Egyptian poet and playwright explained, "An Egyptian person can reach into his pocket and buy someone food or pastries; that's something normal, but for the Egyptian people to go and buy papers and markers and bring it to us, that shows that the Egyptian people understand the importance of the artists in the revolution."

Hundreds of images and videos of artists and their work have circulated
since demonstrations started in Egypt (image courtesy of NBC Photoblog)
Interestingly enough, Facebook has remained very quiet and made few public comments about its undeniable role in the latest wave of revolutionary uprisings in the Middle East. As Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard told the New York Times on Monday, “It might be tougher for Facebook than anyone else. Facebook has been ambivalent about the use of their platform by activists.” Still, Facebook along with Google, Twitter, and YouTube actively assisted protesters in both the Tunisia and Egyptian revolutions by helping to fend off viral attacks on its systems by government hackers and even setting up alternative routing of information when the official networking sites were compromised. In this way, it is clear that the mandate of these companies is to remain open and accessible and allow the free flow of information exchange at all costs.

Still, one of the difficulties of making sense of the will to protest through the aid of social networks has been the undeniable cynicism, growing ironic commentary, and fear of the dwindling interest that has already emerged as the transitions in Egypt remain uncertain and very fluid. As an "event", the Egyptian revolution appears to have met its expiry date with many Western audiences.  CNN’s Anderson Cooper was even apologizing a few days ago to his audience (albeit somewhat sarcastically) for continuing to bring news of spreading protests and government violence against citizens of Bahrain and Libya. And with news of the tragic beating and sexual assault of ABC news correspondent Lara Logan on the very day of Mubarak’s resignation, the conversations have also turned focus away from discussions of democracy to the many  difficult and unresolved tensions that exist between Western observers of the Middle East and the actual inhabitants of the region. Overall, it appears that the persistent fear on all sides seems to concern who is leading the charge of change and for how long.

Another image from Tahrir Hipsters which features
a "fashionable" protester wielding a camera
Perhaps the newly created Tahrir Hipsters website illustrates and provides the best ironic statement on this confusion over the role of social networking. With the tagline “Celebrating Revolution in Style,” the website went viral this week with a minimal format picturing what looks like non-resident Egyptians who appear to join the revolution as a kind of fashion statement. With stylized photographs of attractive protesters typing tweets into their iPhones and Blackberrys, one could be forgiven for thinking they were looking at images from the Sartorialist. And perhaps there is a kind of ugly truth to what is being suggested here. The underlying fact is that most of the social networking mechanisms that helped bring about changes in Egypt are intrinsically linked to business interests calculated upon attracting the same young and tech-savvy consumers featured on the Hipster website. But like it or not, the notion of  “pure” and “authentic” grassroots protest movements outside these links is almost impossible to conceive of today. It remains to be seen how far, how wide, and for whose benefit the protest movements first sparked in Tunisia and then in Egypt will spread, but whatever the final outcome, it will continue to involve the unpredictable and uncharted pathways facilitated by the Internet.