The Best of Tools, and the Worst

THE EGYPTIAN revolution started on Facebook. True. The Iranians who took to the streets last year to try to overturn a fraudulent election used Twitter to coordinate their actions and to communicate with the outside world. Also true.

I used to think that all the visionary verbiage you sometimes hear about global community, the power of connectedness, and the “hive mind” of the Web was a bunch of pothead baloney. But now I have to wonder.

Meanwhile, last fall, old-school rock and roll star John Mellencamp stood up on his hind legs and declared, “The Internet is the most dangerous thing invented since the atomic bomb.” Mellencamp was thinking mostly about the Web’s impact on artists and the arts. “It’s destroyed the music business. It’s going to destroy the movie business,” he said. But he could have added that it’s well on the way to destroying mass-market independent journalism.

Of course, Mellencamp is a bit of a curmudgeon, and I may be turning into one, too. But I still think he’s on to something. The fact is that we’ve got ourselves a paradox here. Like every other technology since the wheel, social media are tools that can be used for good and for ill.

In repressive societies, like Egypt and Iran, in which independent mediating institutions (news outlets, political parties, labor unions, universities, religious communities, etc.) have been crippled, destroyed, or co-opted, social media can be a panacea. They allow people to work around the system, cobble together free and voluntary associations, and speak their subversive thoughts out loud. This helped the Egyptians to move a million people into Liberation Square, and once that analog community in the square was established, it didn’t matter when the regime shut down the virtual one.

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