Don’t hate the player, hate the game

The past few days have been filled with news articles regarding the riots and violence prevailing in the Middle East in response to a negative video that was posted on YouTube. Many seem to point at YouTube rather than the actual video or the video maker, either criticizing the website or raising the question of whether or not YouTube, and other social media platforms, were presenting a new kind of mobility for ideological warfare particularly in the Middle East. Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center seems to believe so, or at least to a certain degree, in his article “Social media as a part of Middle East discontent.” Bomboy calls the YouTube video and the responses to it in the Middle East and North Africa “the latest result of the global impact of social media as a game changer in the region.”

Other impacts of social media in the region include the utilization of Facebook to gather support for different causes and to spark a line of uprisings in different countries whose people felt they were being oppressed by their governments and the turn to Twitter to disseminate information regarding the revolutions when Facebook was blocked.

However, while Bomboy references Twitter and Facebook as being key players in the uprisings in Libya and Egypt over recent years, he implies that social media are merely facilitators rather than instigators. Nancy Baym explains this relationship between technology and it’s users in Personal Connections in the Digital Age: Digital Media and Society Series. It is what she calls the more likely social discourse of new media, the social shaping of technology, suggesting that we not only influence the technologies that we produce, but we are influenced by them as well. This means a few things. One, this reaffirms Bomboy’s point that the access to social media such as YouTube and Twitter didn’t cause the riots in the Middle East; rather, it merely helped disseminate the information that brought interest to their causes. Bomboy writes, “the use of social media in [Libya and Egypt] was…a tool to generate international interest in their conflicts.” Two, this brings up the question of why. Why is social media being so heavily used as a way to garner international attention instead of traditional news sources?

Dr. David Beer may have an answer. In “Social network(ing) sites…revisiting the story so far: A response to danah boyd & Nicole Ellison,” he raises the idea that while many such as boyd and Ellison try to divide the online and offline lives of users, we may not be able to anymore. He writes that trying to create a division between the two may cause us to “overlook some of the crucial aspects of SNS concerning its already established and realized potential to be a mundane part of our lives and our everyday communication” (522). This point is crucial in explaining why social media has been such a “game changer” as Bomboy describes. Social media is becoming what Baym would call domesticated, or going from “being fringe (wild) objects to everyday (tame) objects embedded deeply in the practices of daily life” (45). Social media has become a part of our everyday lives, so much that we couldn’t imagine what our lives would be without such websites. We are creating technologies that allow us to check our social media every second of the day, increasing its mobility so that no matter where we are we can always Instagram a photo, write a funny tweet, or post a Facebook status about how awesome our lives are. So when a group of people are trying to grab our attention, it only makes sense that they would go through the few outlets they knew would get the greatest reach: our most popular social media networks.

This is to say that the invention of social media isn’t the cause for the uprisings in the Middle East that are occurring. Rather, it has been a facilitator, playing a role in gaining momentum for the issues to finally bubble to the surface. Going back to my earlier question of why people chose social media over news outlets to share their story, I remember in 2011 finding more news about the Libyan revolution from various Twitter feeds than on CNN or any other news outlet. More than three days after the revolution had begun and Twitter and Tumblr had exploded with live newsfeeds of Al Jazeera and those in Libya tweeting to make ‘Libya’ a worldwide trending topic, I finally saw an article on an American news website in regards to what was going on in the Middle East. Social media consists of user-generated content that is instant, unedited, and is free of the carefully crafted syntax and diction of traditional news. There was a sense of urgency for me when I refreshed my Twitter feed and saw three tweets about people running from government police whipping people down the streets versus the article I read that merely stated there was conflict between the Libyans and their government. It was much more personal to read their actual tweets.

I believe this is what Bomboy is alluding to in saying that social media is a part of the Middle East discontent. Social media has become the new outlet for news, especially for younger generations. No longer do people rely on listening to the radio for breaking news or their TV’s: they go to the internet and see what they can find instantly. They go on Twitter and see what others are saying, what the trending topics are, what AP has been tweeting.

While social media didn’t cause these revolutions, they definitely played a part in making them known across the world. Don’t blame social media for these revolutions. We have to acknowledge the fact that social media is just a player in the game.

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