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Beth Coleman on “Tweeting the Revolution”

Beth Coleman presents some of her recent research on the protests in Tahrir square, and a broader theory of how social networks and activism in the physical world work together today at the Berkman Center. With her is Mike Ananny, her coauthor and researcher in danah boyd’s lab at Microsoft Research. The presentation, “Tweeting the Revolution”, tries to understand how we read large data sets to understand located action. This is a timely topic because we’re seeing a rise in protest activity that’s been missing from the public sphere for a few decades. Coleman wants to know what we can understand about social media and people’s willingness to take an activist stance. One of the foci of her work is the idea of mediated copresence, which she sees as a major way of understanding the relationship between technology and public action.

Tahrir Square offers an opportunity to think through the relationship between three types of speech:
– Public speech, the broadcast of information to a broad audience
– Civic speech, speech within the networks of your located environment
– Poetic speech, speech about expressing needs and interests

What’s the effect of Twitter, SMS and other technologies in a space like Tahrir? They may be critical in understanding the sustainability of commitments to a movement beyond the initial phase of protest.

In his critiques of online activism in understanding the Arab Spring, Malcolm Gladwell has suggested that activism needs to include bodily presence, risk of harm or arrest, and developed organizational infrastructures. It’s worth asking those questions – does online participation matter? Do we need bodily presence for activism? Coleman and Ananny use the possibility of bodily risk – in this case, the physical presence in Egypt – as a precursor for inclusion for her interview group. She cites Elaine Scarry’s work on body and pain, suggesting that when a body is in pain, there’s a loss of self, a loss of agency, and a loss of language. Pain cannot be articulated, and there’s the failure of “subject as a system”. So physical location in Egypt opens risk of incarceration and torture, and creates a category of potentially effected actor.

There’s lots of analysis of network collective action from at least two points of view: considering social media as an augmentation to traditional organizing tools, and considering network media as a form of command and control. There’s an open space for analysis around strategic and tactical engagement around located network media. We might think of social media as a way of facilitating co-presence, the way of being part of a phenomenon either in physical space or in a complementary virtual space. If we’re continually surrounded by Twitter, Facebook and SMS, which remind us of people’s presence even if we’re not interacting with them, how does this help us understand a move from onlooker to participant in collective action.

To understand copresence, we need to understand quotidian media engagement. 17% of Egyptians were online before the revolution and 72% on mobile phones. Coleman notes that Kate Crawford, studying non-literate women in India, sees SMS use from people you wouldn’t expect to be able to use SMS. It’s worth being open to the notion that SMS could be a powerful tool for sending the sense of presence for a very large swath of an Egyptian audience. Coleman suggests that we need to engage in careful consideration of the oral and the local to understand the cascae of strong and weak ties and their relationship to collective action.

She and Ananny propose a way of thinking through Egyptian positions towards the Tahrir protests. There were people who were present in Tahrir and those who weren’t. There were people engaged with the protests online and those who weren’t. We can create four categories of engagement by considering those categories in terms of binaries. This separates some figures from the discussion – individuals like Alaa Abdel Fatteh, who was deeply engaged online, but in South Africa for much of the protest. But it’s a useful structure in part because it forces you to consider the bottom quadrant, those who didn’t engage physically or online, and are therefore the hardest to study. Eszter Hargittai’s contribution to the work, Coleman notes, is to urge her to take that quadrant of nonparticipation seriously.

Interviews with participants quickly complicate and stretch the boundaries of these categories. An interview with a 20-something woman, upper middle class, who’s been using Ushahidi to map sexual harassment, shows Coleman that “on/off the square” may be too binary a distinction. In the wake of the media blackout on the 28th, she tells Coleman, she was motivated to go to the square because she didn’t want to be alone, she wanted to find other people, and she felt like the movement was moving from online to offline. But as she headed to the square, she felt a sense of risk and turned around. Her story calls into question the idea of whether you needed to be in Tahrir physically to be part of the revolution.

Coleman shows us a graph of Dima Khatib’s Twitter network rendered by Gilad Lotan. Based on the frameworks Coleman is suggesting, can we better understand who connects, who retweets and how information cascades? “How might the data trace of media engagement overlap with the human narrative?”

This matters, ultimately, because it influences how we might develop new tools. This past weekend, Coleman led a workshop with Juliana Rotich of Ushahidi, a platform for crisis mapping and management. “After the crisis, what are the tools for sustaining movements?”

4 thoughts on “Beth Coleman on “Tweeting the Revolution””

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  4. Thank you for this. With the proliferation of cheap technology ( I believe India is working on a $100 laptop)the usefulness of twitter and other social media is only going to grow. We must remain vigilant however with regard to current internet censorship legislation.

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