Twitter Has Officially Replaced the Town Square | Backchannel
In 2011, a few days after yet another major protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, Sana (not her real name) and I sat in a coffee shop close to the square where so much had happened in a few months. In the immediate aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the protesters’ spirit and optimism seemed to shine on everything. Even corporate advertisers were using the theme of revolution to sell soft drinks and other products. Ads for sunglasses highlighted revolutionary slogans and colors.
Adapted from Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci. Copyright © 2017 Zeynep Tufekci. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.
Sana came from a well-off Egyptian family that, like many, had maintained a fiercely apolitical stance before the revolution. Politics was never discussed at home. She was a talented young woman who went to one of Egypt’s best universities, spoke English very well, and, like many of her peers, had a view of the world beyond that of the older generation that still ruled Egypt and the timid elders who feared Mubarak’s repressive regime. She told me about feeling trapped and about frustration with her family and social circle, all of whom rebuked her attempts at even mild discussions of Egyptian politics. She could not find a way to cross this boundary in the offline world, so she went on Twitter.
In an earlier era, Sana might have kept her frustrations to herself and remained isolated, feeling lonely and misunderstood. But now, digital technologies provide multiple avenues for people to find like-minded others and to signal their beliefs to one another. Social media led Sana to other politically oriented young people. Over a strong brew in a trendy Egyptian coffee shop, she explained that she had gone online to look for political conversations that were more open and more inclusive than any she had experienced in her offline personal life, and that this had led to her participation in the massive Tahrir protests.
There is much more to be said about the aftermath of the movements in which Sana participated, but the initial stages of these movements illuminate how digital connectivity alters key social mechanisms. Many people tend to seek people who are like themselves or who agree with them: This social science finding long predates the internet.
Social scientists call this “homophily,” a concept similar to the notion “Birds of a feather stick together.” Dissidents and other minorities especially draw strength and comfort from interactions with like-minded people because they face opposition from most of society or, at the very least, the authorities. Digital connectivity makes it easier for like-minded people to find one another without physical impediments of earlier eras, when one had to live in the right neighborhood or move to a city and find the correct café. Now, people may just need to find the right hashtag.
MORE OF THE TOP TECH BOOKS OF 2017
Sana was different from those in her immediate environment. She had been unable to find people who shared her interests in politics and were motivated enough to brave the regime’s repression. When she turned to Twitter, though, she could easily find and befriend a group of political activists, and she later met those people offline as well. They eventually became her social circle. She said that she finally felt at home and alive from being around young people who were engaged and concerned about the country’s future. When the uprising in Tahrir broke out in January 2011, she joined them at the square as they fought, bled, and hoped for a better Egypt. Had it not been for social media leading her to others with similar beliefs before the major uprising, she might never have found and become part of the core group that sparked the movement.
Of course, like-minded people gathered before the internet era, but now it can be done with much less friction, and by more people. For most of human history, one’s social circle was mostly confined to family and neighborhood because they were available, easily accessible, and considered appropriate social connections. Modernization and urbanization have eroded many of these former barriers. People are now increasingly seen as individuals instead of being characterized solely by the station in life into which they were born. And they increasingly seek connections as individuals, and not just in the physical location where they were born.
Rather than connecting with people who are like them only in ascribed characteristics—things we mostly acquire from birth, like family, race, and social class (though this one can change throughout one’s life)—many people have the opportunity to seek connections with others who share similar interests and motivations. Of course, place, race, family, gender, and social class continue to play a very important role in structuring human relationships—but the scope and the scale of their power and their role as a social mechanism have shifted and changed as modernity advanced.
Opportunities to find and make such connections with people based on common interests and viewpoints are thoroughly intertwined with the online architectures of interaction and visibility and the design of online platforms. These factors—the affordances of digital spaces—shape who can find and see whom, and under what conditions; not all platforms create identical environments and opportunities for connection. Rather, online platforms have architectures just as our cities, roads, and buildings do, and those architectures affect how we navigate them. If you cannot find people, you cannot form a community with them.
Cities, which bring together large numbers of people in concentrated areas, and the discursive spaces, like coffeehouses and salons, that spring up in them are important to the public sphere exactly because they alter architectures of interaction and visibility. Online connectivity functions in a very similar manner but is an even more profound alteration because people do not have to be in the same physical space at the same time to initiate a conversation and connect with one another. The French salons and coffeehouses of the nineteenth century were mostly limited to middle- or upper-class men, as were digital technologies in their early days, but as digital technology has rapidly become less expensive, it has just as rapidly spread rapidly to poorer groups. It is the new town square, the water cooler, the village well, and the urban coffeehouse, but also much more.
This isn’t because people leave behind race, gender, and social class online, and this isn’t because the online sphere is one only of reason and ideas, with no impact from the physical world. Quite the opposite, such dimensions of the human experience are reproduced and play a significant role in the networked public sphere as well. The difference is the reconfigured logic of how and where we can interact; with whom; and at what scale and visibility.
Powered by WPeMatico