THE BLOG
09/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Geopolitics of Facebook

Young people who want to receive phone calls but don't want their teachers or parents to catch on can download high-frequency "mosquito" ringtones. After a certain age, the older set loses its ability to hear these higher frequency tones. In this way, older people literally become tone deaf to the way younger people communicate. Talk about resonant metaphors.

The world is a-twitter over the revolutionary implications of new technologies that young people almost instinctively understand and older people just don't get. Several revolutions and half-revolutions have been ascribed to Twitter and Facebook, much as the Protestant Reformation has been linked to Gutenberg's presses and the political ferment in the former Soviet bloc partly to mimeographs, copy machines, and faxes. Early adopters of these technologies tend to be on the younger side. So we are facing yet again a confluence of youth and technology heralding large-scale political and social change.

Few analysts, of course, argue that Twitter and Facebook cause social transformation. They're only tools. But we would be foolish to ignore how these tools are shaping consciousness. Twitter both reflects our attention-deficit culture and reinforces our increasing preference for smaller and smaller niblets of information. Facebook, meanwhile, is the logical offspring of the Internet and reality television, since it facilitates communication among multiple "friends" and also allows users to expose their lives to an audience.

I think of Facebook only as a means to an end: a way to efficiently disseminate information to a targeted group of people (for instance: check out the Foreign Policy In Focus Facebook group). But Facebook is more than a tool that would-be revolutionaries use to announce an upcoming demonstration or a regime tries to suppress in an effort to preserve the status quo. Facebook represents a fundamentally different understanding of public/private space.

People over a certain age don't quite hear the "frequency" of Facebook. They don't understand why anyone would reveal so much private and often banal information, which in previous eras would have gone unrecorded or been relegated to a secret diary. Yet people under a certain age don't think twice about posting information that could one day jeopardize a job application, deep-six a budding romance, or simply prove utterly embarrassing to one's future family and friends. These everyday revelations are all part of a different set of social relationships that doesn't so much eliminate the private as redefine it along a new continuum.

Goodbye "too much information." Hello "status update."

This public-private divide is a matter of social and academic interest in places like the United States. In a country like Iran, however, the changing consciousness of the younger generation will ultimately have explosive political impact. The Green Revolution was not really a response to the economic situation in the country (the economy rose nearly 7% over the previous year and poverty levels declined). It didn't put forward radically new politicians (the reformers are or were members of the political elite).

Rather, the revolution was fueled by a desire for a more liberal society. The Iranian state has attempted to legislate what is often considered private morality: mandating the use of headscarves, determining what kind of music people can listen to, policing the Internet. Many Iranians, particularly younger Iranians, simply want to have more control over their private lives. They want what their Facebook friends in other countries have. Of course, older Iranians are probably deeply suspicious of these liberalizing trends, which is why so many voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the recent elections.

"Iranian culture itself is such a mixture of European, American and an overarching Persian influence," Iranian filmmaker Maryam Habibian tells FPIF contributor Noor Iqbal in Demystifying Iran. "You can see it everywhere. Young people show their Western-ness by smoking cigarettes and in their fashion as well. The girls will be covered up but they wear tight tunics and they have highlighted hair you can see through their scarves. This mixture has always been around."

The regime can attempt to suppress these outer signs of rebellion through show trials and other measures. But it can do little to stop the shift in consciousness taking place among young people. Through Facebook, they are reclaiming public space. They are creating a global community that makes the ruling elite in Iran even more parochial. Much that is happening in Iran today among young people is taking place in the higher frequencies, in the mosquito range that only they can hear. By the time the authorities figure out the revolutionary implications of all this, they'll be history.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post. To subscribe to FPIF's e-zine World Beat, click here.