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.

But there’s another lesson from the Egyptian revolution. Ultimately, power still resides in the institutions that human beings create to accomplish common purposes. The Egyptians didn’t succeed where the Iranians have (so far) failed because they have better Internet service. They succeeded because, when the crucial moment arrived, Egypt’s conscripted foot soldiers couldn’t be trusted to fire on the crowds. Still, social media have provided an important spark in the Middle East. In many countries, there’s now an opening for civil society that wasn’t there before. And if the price for that is putting up with Mark Zuckerberg’s empty-headed utopianism, so be it.

Meanwhile in America, the mediating institutions of our civil society are in place, and not too long ago they were very strong. Here social media, for all their rhetorical promotion of inter-connectedness, can in fact be forces to weaken both the ties that bind and the institutions that express them. In a recent column in The New York Times, media critic David Carr pointed out that new media are creating a form of digital feudalism. Facebook, Twitter, and lots of blog sites, even political ones, are private for-profit corporations, not public utilities. They are the landowners of the age. And, in Carr’s analysis, their users are the serfs. We may get to live on a digital plot for free (i.e. your Facebook page). But in return the landlord gets all the wealth that is created there. These days the crop is “content”—whether in the form of gossip or cultural or political analysis—and fewer and fewer people are getting paid less and less to create it. Carr acknowledges that this whole “everybody is a star” thing has its democratizing appeal. But it is also siphoning precious ad money away from institutions that pay trained professionals to make sense out of the world.

In the end, the new tools are nice in their place, but the real struggle for us, as for our friends in the Middle East, is to create an actual 3-D place in which we can stand, together.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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