Originally published in Digital Development Debates

The Arabic revolutions, initially ignited in Tunisia in December 2010, have been shaped by the coordinative and uncomplicated techniques offered by the Web 2.0. The media enjoys symbolically referring to them as „Facebook“ or „Twitter“ revolutions. Which raises the question: Can social media do justice to this claim and, if not, what was their actual function in the revolutionary context?

Revolution is a physically real event

First of all, we have to dispense with the idea of linking revolutions and social networks too closely. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and MySpace create digital public spaces. Real power relationships, however, require actual physical space. Revolutions necessitate direct confrontation with state violence. This takes place on the street or, as in the case of the Egyptian Revolution, in a central place in the capital city of Cairo, the Midan Tahrir, which has now become a symbol that provides an identity. Revolutionary images are produced on location, offline in a sense. In the revolutionary context, Facebook and Twitter then offer a platform for the coordination and, more importantly, the relatively uncensored exchange of the information in these pictures. Social networks can also assume the function of the so-called „political street“.

The political street – the everyday becomes political

Asef Bayat’s theory of the political street in the Arabic world can be divided into four basic components:

  1. The street as a collective term for public spaces such as parking lots, markets, work places etc. that offer the average citizen a place for active discussion, a space to express the collective mood and opinions.
  2. The street serves as a place where the problems under discussion collect. The individual becomes communal.
  3. Joint activities to change specific problems develop without having been organised or planned.
  4. So-called „social non-movements“ can develop.

Bayat describes the latter as a basically unorganised collection of different emotions, expressed opinions and problems of individual average citizens that can develop from individual action to collective activity in spaces not originally intended for this use. Facebook, blogs and MySpace offer more effective alternative digital platforms than Twitter. Since around 60% of people in the Arabic world are under age 30, and this peer group generally shows a high affinity for digital social networks, these media represent a digital variation of the Bayatian political street. The „like“ button here is used for the quasi-empirical determination of the general mood, recording users‘ emotionality through the click of a mouse. It does not take many steps to move from this unorganised collection of opinions to a structural – though in its implementation at times uncoordinated looking – mass movement.