Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Don't you know, they're talkin 'bout a revolution, it sounds like a ... tweet *

It used to be like this: you would start in a far-away place, in exile from your own country, gather 80 something people in a boat which was so old it's name was "Granma", sail back to your country, where your group almost immediately got decimated upon arrival till there were only a couple of you left and then start a guerrilla fight from the mountains, as result of which, a couple of years after your return, the dictator you were after  had to flee the country and you could declare yourself a successful revolutionary hero and continue working on getting famous by smoking big cigars.

Or you could go for the scenario where you set up a Party that is not especially popular with those in command, get squeezed into an area where you're about to get smoked out like rabbits and from which you manage an escape by means of a long march which costs the life of thousands of your followers, only to settle in the end with the survivors in a place where you live in grottoes dug out from the mountains and from where you start to charm the peasants in the neighborhood, pick a small fight with the reigning nationalists, pick some more fights, a bit further away from your grottoes and helped by those peasants which you charmed by not taking their food and not raping their women, after which you join those nationalists because they need you to help them fight some japanese scum but once you've "been there, done that", you just beat those same old nationalists and finally march victorious on the capital ... where you declare yourself a successful revolutionary hero and continue working on creating one disaster after another from there onwards.

Today, things move a bit different. The starting point is basically still the same: at the top, there's someone you don't like and who you want to go, or there's a cause who you think will go nowhere without your support. The means to reach your goal, however, are slightly different from the past practices. Since it doesn't help your cause to get your head chopped off the moment you set foot on enemy land, and walking for thousands of miles to get out of jeopardy is neither high on your agenda, so you take out your cellphone and you send ... a tweet. Viva La Revolucion !

The last couple of weeks have brought another example of this new revolutionary model. One of the major topics on Twitter was the hashtag #freevenezuela, pointing to an outpouring of dissatisfaction in the country with Hugo Chavez' closing down of several television- and radiostations, critical of his government, and his reigning in of freedom of expression in general. With the Venezuelan economy still in dire straits and not likely to recover significantly anytime soon, El Presidente is trying to turn attention away from the real problems, for instance by picking yet another fight with neighbour Colombia, but it seems many of his compatriots don't like to be fooled no longer and they are massively engaging in twittering their frustration. One could say: well let them, if that takes the steam off the kettle, there's worse things to have to deal with, but Chavez sure didn't see it that way: he saw fit to condemn Twitter as a "tool of terror" and saw the need of "eliminating terrorist threats posed by social networks".

He's not the only one freaking out over messages of maximum 140 characters. When elections were held last year in Iran, re-elected president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad felt the tweeting heat coming right at him, with massive street protests as a consequence and when the Uighurs in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region started to vent their frustration over the treatment of their (islamic) minority by the majority of Han Chinese, one of the first sites to not survive the voracious appetite of the Great Chinese Firewall sure enough was Twitter (followed by an almost complete shutdown of the internet in the restive province).

Throughout history we have seen the power of words being used by the literate, sometimes in name of the oppressed, sometimes in their own name and being dreaded by the ones in power. But as is explained in this video, what we had in the past was a one-to-one sort of conversation, or, in the case of broadcast, a one-to-many type of conversation. What Twitter and the other social media are bringing us at the beginning of this new century is the many-to-many conversation that is no longer mainly driven by professionals but by amateurs, that is ubiquitous and that is fast. Examples from the same TED-talk: last time China had an earthquake the size of the one we saw last year ravaging part of Sichuan Province (i.e. the earthquake that swept away the town of Tangshan in 1976), it took the government three months to admit to the scope of the disaster. Now there were people taking pictures of buildings collapsing, sending tweets as things were happening and it was via Twitter that the BBC became aware of the quake, quite before the US Geological Survey website had anything online.

It's the speed and the ubiquity of these media that gets world-leaders with a less than clear conscience going berserk over it. It's the rallying power of these media that now starts off revolutions: the technology resembles the guerrila tactics of the past -an individual engaging in an act of "insubordination" against the organisation he's fighting by sending a message opposing that organization and making others aware- but when you look at the turn-out of the masses in Iran, in Xinjiang, Tibet, the convening of the forces progresses at such a speed that not to take heed when it is directed against you, would be ... well ... unwise, to say the least.

It's too early to tell where this new evolution may lead us, whether the obvious benefits it may have in bringing to the surface the abuses of power that happen worldwide will outweigh the dangers of having a whole mass of amateurs taking the driver's seat, but at least for now, it may bring a new voice to those that have remained unheard. 

Sincerely Yours.

* Free adaptation from Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' about a Revolution"

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