Opinion: Why the revolution will not be tweeted

Bill Snyder argues that technology's role in events in Egypt has been over-stated

Paul Revere galloped from Charlestown to Lexington on that famous night in 1775. He couldn't have done it without his horse, so did that mean the American Revolution was really the "horse revolution"? That's silly, of course. But calling the Egyptian revolution the "Facebook (or Twitter) revolution" is just as misguided, and it's a symptom of our ethnocentric habit of viewing the world through the prism of the American experience or — in the case of Egypt — American technology. There's no doubt that Twitter and Facebook were tools the mostly young Egyptian rebels used to good effect. But that's all they were: tools. After all, the revolution continued — and intensified — when those tools were disabled by the Egyptian govenment's shutdown of the Internet. Yet we in the media and the technology industry are absolutely convinced that it couldn't have happened without social networking. As New Yorker magazine author Malcolm Gladwell puts it: "Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools." Exactly. The blind spot that puts the American tech industry at risk

If that blind spot extended no further than to foreign news events, it would be crippling enough. But the emergence of the developing world as a key market, supplier, and competitor makes that occluded vision all the more dangerous — and yet another reason why it's so difficult for us to compete against countries such as India, China, South Korea, and Singapore. It's worth noting, for example, that Asia now accounts for 20 percent of world software revenue; when that's added to Europe's 36 percent share, the American market is a minority, according to a study by Pierre Audoin Consultants. The middle class in those countries is growing rapidly, and like the Horatio Alger story of old, many of those newly prosperous people are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. As another example of that occluded vision in America, consider the H-1B visa. Forget for a minute that many of us (including me) see it as an excuse to undercut domestic labor in the IT industry. Instead, ask yourself: When was the last time you met someone here on an H-1B who didn't speak pretty good English? Not very often, I'm sure. Those folks are willing to learn a difficult foreign language if that's what it takes to succeed. Indeed, countries like Vietnam have made the teaching of English a national priority. Yet foreign language proficiency in the United States is lower than in almost any other country in the developed world. (I'm not, of course, considering the millions of Americans of Hispanic heritage who speak both fluent Spanish and English.) Do you see the connection? No one dies for Facebook

You don't need to be a military historian or a combat vet to know a simple truth: A soldier fights and dies for the guy next to him, not primarily for patriotism, or glory, or ideology, but for the other men (and sometimes women) in the unit. That is what Gladwell called a "strong-tie connection," in a New Yorker essay fittingly subtitled "Why the revolution will not be tweeted." He argues that many of us believe that a tie forged virtually via Facebook or Twitter is very strong. But it isn't. Compare the bonds among the Civil Rights workers who risked their lives in the early 1960s to those that existed between the people who banded together to find a bone marrow donor for a critically ill Silicon Valley man -- a story that is often trotted out to prove the overwhelming worth of social media as an agent for change. Helping Sameer Bhatia find a donor was certainly a charitable thing to do, and it would have been much harder to accomplish without social media. But it required no sacrifice or risk. The ties that bound those people together were weak, not strong. Facing down the dogs in Birmingham, Ala., involved one heck of risk, and it wouldn't have happened simply because it was on Facebook, had there been such a thing 50 years ago. Their personal ties were profound. That was true in Egypt, and earlier in Tunisia, Moldovia, and Iran. Social media was an effective tool, but was it the real agent of change? Hardly. It was the people in those countries who committed for real by going into the streets and confronting the authorities that made the revolutions happen, not those safely messaging from their computers and mobile phones. Gladwell points out American commentators swooned over tweets from Iran during that unsuccessful uprising. "Western journalists who couldn't reach -- or didn't bother reaching? -- people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag '#iranelection.' Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than [Iranians' native] Farsi," he wrote, quoting an article in Foreign Policy by Golnaz Esfandiari [6]. Argue with that one. Still, in the popular discourse, it doesn't seem matter how much logic can be brought to bear: We're convinced that Twitter and Facebook are the engines of everything because they are ours. We invented them, we own them, we know how to use them. They must be important. Such thinking isn't so different than that of the product manager who can't find Singapore on a map and wonders why he can't sell anything in that country or strike a deal with a supplier there. Looking at the world as if it were a shadow of the United States is foolish and shortsighted, as well as a recipe for failure. Snyder is a San Francisco technology writer

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