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Social Media News and Egypt

Over the past few days, I’ve had a growing sense of disappointment about social media news about Egypt. Followed by puzzlement at my own disappointment–what was I expecting anyway?

In theory, news events conveyed through social media should offer powerful immediacy and authenticity. If official channels are unreliable, real people can give you the story. People collaborate, and something greater emerges. Sharing information, gawking might even turn into meaningful action.

Which brings me to the historic events in Egypt over the last fortnight. Watching events in Egypt unfold on Twitter, I was reminded more than anything of 24-hour television news coverage of major events. Like the newscaster standing out in a hurricane, watching pieces of a roof blow off, and interviewing a random person hunkered down at a bar, waiting the storm out.  The mismatch is in the temporal domain: I don’t need that many updates to know what’s going on. After a while, it becomes more maudlin entertainment than information that can either enlighten or move to action.

Am I the only person who turned the television and Internet off on September 11th? I knew my family in New York City were OK–my Mom called to say hi and it was me who told her to turn the TV on, something was happening downtown. I got the gist of what was happening, and I turned the news off and went back to work. I had a CHI paper to work on, after all. I was glad to have the CHI deadline looming–a reason to focus on something constructive and not sit slack jawed watching horrors unfold. I got a better understanding by waiting for composed and verified news later, rather than hearing every rumor in real time. Likewise, hundreds of tweets a day about every sign in Tahrir Square are not helping my understanding of current events in Egypt.

Malcolm Gladwell has written a couple short pieces recently arguing that social media has nothing to do with social movements and meaningful civic participation. I think he’s wrong. Communications media don’t cause major political and social shifts, but do they facilitate them? Even with the Internet literally turned off in Egypt all last week, I’m still convinced many-to-many communications played a non-trivial role in sea changes in public opinion. But the details matter, and we’re not there yet–the technology can be consciously iterated on to help achieve desired aims.  This is what I hope to contribute to.

PhD student Jill Dimond and I are studying what factors encourage people to become more meaningfully involved in social movements, and how social media can help. Dimond is webmaster and mobile app developer for ihollaback.org, a federation of sites that encourage women to report instances of street harassment. Hollaback’s founders hope that awareness can promote change. The key research question is understanding what the general public can contribute to any given social movement, and can social media help them be better informed. Better informed  not about the latest plank flying off the roof but about what it means and what they can personally contribute to making the situation better.

I don’t understand either the current impact of social media news and journalism, or its future potential. I don’t think anyone does. But I have a hunch there’s an opportunity here for researchers to help shape that potential towards democratic aims.

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Categories: news, social computing, Twitter
  1. May 22, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I was reminded more than anything of 24-hour television news coverage of major events. Like the newscaster standing out in a hurricane,

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