Slate Magazine asked me to provide a short essay on the social media and Egypt revolt as part of my forthcoming talk in DC, so I did, here it is: http://www.slate.com/id/2298948/.
Meanwhile, please find below the longer version — unedited one.
The emergence of online collective actions has driven much attention and recently made headlines based on what has transpired politically in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. However, there is very little research devoted to deepen our understanding of this phenomenon. Our knowledge on these kinds of observable facts mostly relies on quick, short-term, often journalistic observations and post-event visualization of social media mapping. The tendency to either over-emphasize or under-emphasize the role of social media without any knowledge on the actual usage of these media and perceiving these uprisings as being ‘unexpected’ and ‘surprising’ indicates a lack of in-depth studies in this area. Looking from a scientific lens, what gets labeled as ‘surprise’ can also be a product of phenomenological impediments or epistemological oversight. A deeper investigation on these movements, especially those in Egypt, shows that the historical moment happened in Tahrir square was actually an ‘imaginable surprise.’* Not that we knew when the day/date of the event or how it’d happen, but by looking closely the ongoing consolidation of oppositional actors and expansion of on/offline collective action networks over time, we could clearly see that over years there had been a tremendous growth of oppositional networks against the Mubarak regime in the country and thus could envision the outcomes that might come out of this growth. To fully understand phenomena such as the Tahrir revolt, we need to rigorously look beyond the Tahrir days, beyond the usage of Facebook and Twitter, but mostly on how the oppositional networks emerged, expanded, and were translated into a momentous mass movement, and how the Internet and social media were entangled in these processes. Continue reading