Social media revolution

June 22, 2011


AFTER the recent successful Social Media Summit in Karachi, a number of people have started paying attention to the bloggers, the Twitter users and the Facebook addicts.

The realisation’s sinking in that social media isn’t just a game or a useless pastime. Summit attendee Mohammed El Dahshan, an Egyptian blogger who was at the forefront of the recent Egyptian revolution, spoke movingly at a panel about how Egyptian bloggers reported on both technical and social matters during the days in which Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power, gaining the trust of the people who could no longer rely on the government to tell them the truth about their country.

From this we can extrapolate that in countries like Pakistan, the blogosphere, Twitter and Facebook users are the ones who will lead the way to drastic change in Pakistani society because these people are the true revolutionaries in stagnant societies:

young, educated, progressive, eloquent and completely dissatisfied with the status quo, but still optimistic and idealistic enough to actively foment change, rather than sinking into cynicism and passivity.

Pakistanis who use social media formulate ideas, discuss them freely with their peers, with intellectuals and with those leaders who are intelligent enough to have caught on to the zeitgeist. They argue vociferously, disseminate information and they meet, both in virtual space and real space. They make plans for action, and then they carry them out.

Twitter accelerates the energy promulgated by social activism; bloggers think, analyse and interpret the news in a deeper way than mainstream media; the Facebookers build strong social networks based on personal credibility. It all comes together in what’s been jokingly called ‘the Twitter hive mind’, or ‘crowdsourcing’, where the minds of many people work together in a virtual environment to come up with ideas bigger than what individuals can generate. This is where social media derives its power.

What are the rules of the Republic of Twitter? Is Twitter a hierarchy, a democracy (Twittocracy) or a space for anarchy? Who are its people: Tweeple? Twitterati? We don’t know the answers to these questions yet as social media is still evolving rapidly, but it’s safe to say that what happens in social media is Pakistan’s version of a healthy, vibrant society, because we don’t have that in real life.

It’s self-policing. It’s gender neutral. There’s a strong sense of civic duty, of social consciousness. People are eager to do right and to see justice achieved in society. When abusive behaviour, called ‘trolling’, or sexual harassment occurs, the perpetrator is named and shamed, shouted down, blocked and reported.

There is relative safety online; although online activities can have real-world repercussions. In Pakistan we’re fortunate this hasn’t happened yet as it has in Syria or Libya, where bloggers have been arrested and ‘disappeared’ by repressive governments. Social media has worked in Pakistan to build communities with a global flavour. It’s a soapbox on Hyde Park Corner, Karachi community centre, American town hall and Lahori teahouse all in one. It reflects society in real life, but it also has its own effects on society and language.

People have already turned ‘tweet’ into one of the most powerful words in the English language, the way ‘friend’, ‘Facebook’ and ‘blog’ have become some of the most revolutionary words to enter the Oxford Dictionary. They’re all verbs that never existed before, and verbs are the action words of our language — these ones describe actions that never existed before the advent of social media. But one thing emerged from the social media summit that is very clear: social media is the place where change is engineered, fermented and documented, but it has to go beyond online activism, or ‘clicktivism’.

Sitting in the comfort of your home, clicking ‘like’ buttons and signing online petitions will never be enough to achieve social transformation. There has to be street protest, community outreach, personal contact, commitment and follow-through for social media to really have achieved effective change.

Summit attendee Rebecca Chiao of Egypt spoke on a panel for women and social activism in the online sphere about Harassmap, a project which uses online technology to battles sexual harassment of women in Cairo. If a woman is harassed on the street, she can email, text or phone in, and the location of the incident is marked on an online map which other women can access in order to avoid that area.

This became such a powerful movement that the communication ministry approached the founders of Harassmap to discuss its reach. But Harassmap goes further than just plotting danger points on an online map: they go door to door in Cairo and help women who need support in a very real, physical sense. Volunteers conduct training sessions, talk to women face-to-face, make good on the virtual connections by following them up with real ones, giving support and power to a previously disempowered population.

‘Facebook’, ‘Twitter’, ‘blogs’ may be scary words and ideas to some people who don’t yet understand the technology. They will soon become power words as more and more people understand not just how they work, but what change they can effect in people’s lives in Pakistan.

So don’t dismiss social media as a toy to keep your children and teenagers amused. Social media is fast becoming the tool for social revolution, and Pakistan, crying out for change that can be enacted without violence or bloodshed, is at the forefront of a very exciting future.

The writer is author of Slum Child.