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Egypt, the Age of Disruption and the "Me"-in-Media

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A few months and seemingly a lifetime ago -- before the Oscar bait "The Social Network" hit theaters, before Time declared the Facebook cofounder and CEO "Person of the Year," before the Middle East and the Arab world were turned upside-down in a matter of weeks -- I asked Mark Zuckerberg what role he plays in what he's called "the Facebook movement." When he introduced Facebook as a platform in the spring of 2007, addressing a gathering of geeks and techheads in Silicon Valley, that was his pitch: Facebook was a movement.

"How do you see yourself in this movement?" I asked last fall. "Are you the leader of this movement?"

"No, I am not," he answered quickly. As is often the case, Zuckerberg spoke less of himself and more of the company he runs. "I think Facebook has taken on a leadership role to some extent," he said. "But we always think about it in the context of what's going on with the Internet and society in general."

I asked Zuckerberg how Facebook will iterate as cultural nuances get trickier.

"Well, I think an idea needs to be fairly simple in order to resonate at a large scale," he said. "But I think that the single reason why [Facebook] was able to go from being just a college thing at the beginning to now spreading to rural villages in India is because of like the common humanity there, and that, like, people share just the same basic thing, which is that they all have friends and family and they want to stay connected."

"Common humanity."

In other words, it's not the tools, it's the people.

Here in the America, where "freedom of the press" and "freedom of speech" are not just printed in the U.S. Constitution but ingrained deep in the psyche -- so much so that we often mock them, or worse, take them for granted -- there's something that can seem downright trite about all of this hyper-communication. Americans already over-communicate. And the irony is, the more ways we communicate, the less it seems we understand each other. Facebook? Twitter? What a waste, the general line of criticism goes -- nothing but Narcissism 2.0!

Zadie Smith, writing in The New York Review of Books, speaks for the gang of social media naysayers and doubters when she wonders if "the whole Internet will simply become like Facebook: falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous." The first time I read those words, I thought perhaps Smith was using Facebook in a "falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous way." Facebook, after all, is what you make it out to be. If your relationships on the social networking site seem trivial and superfluous, maybe it's because they are. Facebook merely exposed it.

Since Tunisia's uprising unfolded in real-time -- and as the people-powered, grassroots-oriented upheaval spread to Egypt -- many have struggled to contextualize technology's impact on the events of recent weeks. Overall, much of the discourse have fallen on two sides of the same proverbial coin, symptomatic of the kind of right-versus-left, black-or-white false equivalency that passes for much of the political analysis in our discourse.

On one side are those who hail, in varying degrees, "The Twitter Effect!" or "The Facebook Revolution!" (though, curiously, the folks at Twitter and Facebook know better than to make those kinds of simplistic arguments themselves). "Cyber-utopians," they are called. And on the other side are those who continue to understate and devalue the role of social media and mobile technology as communication and organizing tools. They are the "cyber-skeptics" whose writings are accompanied by head-scratching headlines such as "What's Fueling Mideast Protests? It's More Than Twitter" (Wired's David Kravets) to "Does Egypt Need Twitter?" (New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, who last year wrote about social media, activism and "weak ties." Turns out, what was weakly tied -- and I write this as a certified Gladwell fan -- was his 4,453-word essay).

The most lauded cyber-skeptic of them all -- and one whom Gladwell quoted in his much-discussed and much-maligned essay, at least in the Twittersphere -- is Evgeny Morozov, a blogger for Foreign Policy and author of newly published "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom." It's tempting but unfair to say that it's a contrarian book written for the sake of being contrarian; Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, is too smart and too well-read for that. But it's a sign of our rapidly evolving times that even a previous skeptic like the New York Times' Roger Cohen -- who less than two years ago published columns headlined "A Journalist's 'Actual Responsibility'" and "New Tweets, Old Needs" -- recently called Morozov's book "dead wrong." What's accurate and insightful, of course, lie somewhere in the middle.

"Wildly overdrawn claims about social media, often made with weaselly question marks (like: 'Tunisia's Twitter revolution?') and the derisive debunking that follows from those claims ('It's not that simple!') only appear to be opposite perspectives. In fact, they are two modes in which the same weightless discourse is conducted," Jay Rosen, the noted media critic and professor at New York University, wrote me in an email recently. "Revolutionary hype is social change analysis on the cheap. Debunking is techno-realism on the cheap. Neither one tells us much about our world."

Rosen continued: "Almost everyone knows it's not as simple as saying Twitter or Facebook 'cause' revolutions. Almost everyone knows it's foolish to discount social media and peer to peer communication as new and potentially disruptive forces. Grown-ups trying to puzzle through what is actually happening will have to leave the sandbox in which the debunkers and their straw man playmates throw headlines at each other."

A key driving force in this new equilibrium is the role of the media -- and, more specifically, the rise of the "me" in media, allowing any educated and literate global citizen with an Internet connection or mobile phone to tell his or her own story, in many instances bypassing traditional journalists and in other ways deliberately aiding them. It's difficult to imagine Al Jazeera's invaluable coverage of the Eygptian protests without social media, for example. But in addition to Al Jazeera, CitizenTube -- YouTube's well-curated politics and news page -- is posting raw and visceral footage from people on the ground in Egypt.

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