Martin Horwood MP
Social Media crack
‘The revolution will not be televised’ sang the radical American singer/writer Gil Scott-Heron, ‘the revolution will be live!’ He reckoned without Twitter and Facebook. The extraordinary events in the arab world are being relayed to our sitting rooms in Cheltenham not just via TV and radio but direct from protesters on the streets via the new media. For the uninitiated, Facebook is a network of standardised individual websites, with sometimes highly personal content and messages added by both hosts and their ‘friends’. Twitter is simpler, broadcasting short messages from users to anyone who follows them. Both had humble, even trivial, origins. The movie The Social Network shows how Facebook’s origins were firmly rooted in American college students’ adolescent obsession with sex and dating. Twitter took off as a collection of running commentaries by participants in a music and arts festival.
The growth of both has been breathtaking. Facebook only began in 2004 and now has 600 million users worldwide. Twitter is even younger, the first ‘tweet’ sent in 2006. It now has 190 million users sending 65 million messages a day. Dictatorships worldwide are realising that these technologies can spread messages and images faster than they can suppress them. Worst of all, kids in the streets know more about them than their own governments. The first hint of their potential came in Iran in 2009 when Twitter, derided as a vehicle for self-indulgent celebrity egos who wanted to tell the world what they had for breakfast, became the main form of communications between would-be student revolutionaries. That rebellion failed. But then in December a poor Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set fire to himself in desperate protest at endless police harassment. The case became a focus for rebellion, not least on Facebook where thousands read about Bouazizi and watched the brutal police response to the first protests. Within weeks President Ben Ali was gone. Within days the protests had ignited in Egypt and within weeks, longstanding despot Hosni Mubarak was gone too. As I write, Muammar Gaddafi is violently clinging to power in Libya but his authority is ebbing away. And the young protesters are tweeting like crazy, not just there but in Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen too.
But don’t write off traditional media just yet. The independent TV station Al-Jazeera played its part in spreading news of the revolutions too. And the last General Election here was expected to be dominated by new media but was actually thrown open by the leaders’ debates on TV. Mind you, the ‘Twitterati’ had agreed who had won within minutes of the debates, leaving newspapers long behind the game the next morning. Of course if you’re really showing off you get your message across in all these media. Just look at The Cheltonian: in print, on the web at www.thecheltonian.com and on Facebook and Twitter too.
And, after all, if the printed word didn’t matter anymore, would you be reading this column and would I be writing it?
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