Eugenio Tisselli on Sun, 6 Feb 2011 15:40:25 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Why so surprised?

Probably nobody here at nettime is surprised, but if we go by the current media gimmicks, the fact that the Egyptian peole are using Facebook and Twitter (to an extent which is yet uncertain, and needs to be seriously researched) to overthrow the ruling regime seems to be the *Big Finding* of the season.

So, why so surprised?

Yes, many people in the Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria have Facebook profiles, and use them regularly to communicate with their families in the territories occupied by Morocco and their friends in the rest of the world. I have seen that.

Why so surprised? Is it because Orientalism (Edward Said) dies hard, and we in the West are still inclined to see Arabic cultures as being primitive, hopelessly lost in a maze of tradition and religious fanatism? Surprised because they are able to use "our" tools to their own benefit? Is it because, while most of us on this side of the "digital divide" use Facebook mostly to express how very pissed we got at last night's party, the people on "the other side" are finding ways of effectively bypassing their government's censorship and organizing to take the streets?

Yes, rural farmers in Tanzania have more than one mobile phone per family, sometimes even three or four. And guess what? They use them to their own benefit, to trade, sell, organize, communicate. Right on a spot in the jungle for which Google maps doesn't even have high-resolution satellite imagery. I have seen that, too.

So, why so surprised? After all, Howard Rheingold wrote about "Smart Mobs" back in 2002 (not that the book is particularly deep, but it already revealed what we are seeing now)

Here are a couple of fragments of an article I wrote in 2007:

"Howard Rheingold has argued that hyper-connected citizens can go well beyond managing their individual agendas and contact lists, by forming groups in which rapid, massively organized common behaviors can emerge (Rheingold, 2002). He calls these forms of social self-organization mediated through technology âsmart mobsâ. A âclassicâ example of the âsmart mobâ emergent behavior is provided by the civilian coup d'Ãtat against the former Philippines president Joseph Estrada in 2001, articulated through the massive transmission of short text messages (SMS) inviting everyone to gather and protest in Manila. Other similar gatherings have followed in countries such as Spain in 2004, where people also used SMS messages to gather and protest against the then-ruling Popular Party, which lost the elections a day later, or in South Korea in 2008, where massive demonstrations against the import of US beef, assembled thanks to mobile messaging, have taken
 place. Precisely, these Korean demonstrations prompted Rheingold to make a new public statement, asking the question of how smart mobs can be made smarter and less mob-like (Rheingold, 2008). âA smart mob is not necessarily a wise mobâ, he said, responding perhaps to the rising perception that, if self-organization is to become an effective social tactic, it must go beyond just gathering massive amounts of people. After all, a mob is a disorganized group which can act blindly and even destructively."
"The Internet and its many people-to-people networks are providing connected individuals with an abundance of weak social ties (Aguiton and Cardon, 2007). The blurring of the boundaries between 'public' and 'personal' may be articulating the former tensions between individualism and collective solidarity. Joining any cause on the planet is just a click away; making âfriendsâ or expressing an opinion is just as easy. Weak social involvement implies that individuals do not need to agree on ex-ante plans, or invest their efforts in building relations of trust or engaging in real debate. They just need to log in. This new trend, which represents a sort of effortless, uninvolved and listless democracy, may be enough to assemble a smart mob, which will disassemble just as easily. The self-organization of the crowd may appear as intelligent behavior, but more often than not it is just the manifestation of the sheer, brute power of the masses. When there is
 a need for real social advocacy, or when delicate collective issues are at stake, the mere presence of a weakly involved critical mass is certainly not enough."

The interesting thing is not whether the Egyptian protests were initially articulated through Facebook or Twitter, but how the protests are developing right now on the streets, and whose interests (local and global) are *really* at stake.

So, the best thing that can happen now is that we all move beyond this (induced) state of surprise, and start thinking about how can we rethink and maintain digital networks as "our" (not "theirs", ie. governments, big corporations and the like) platforms of choice for empowerment and organization. Let's stop being surprised: it's time to take a good, deep look beyond our comfort zones. It's time to see things more clearly, in all their complexity, and abandon the "networks = freedom" equation and all this myth-making, unless we don't care about falling into traps (see, for example:

"We" need to be more intelligent than "them".



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