Let's admit it: Most wars and revolutions are fought for complex political reasons -- the entirety of which most of us are unable to fully understand. For the average Joe, the Civil War was about slavery, the Iraq War was about oil and the Revolutionary War was about freedom. We want every war to be as simple as Star Wars.
And when a really good bad guy does come along, we merchandise him so hard
his name becomes yet another meaningless buzzword.
The news media is partly to blame, every event needs to be translated into an easily understandable story. It needs a hook to make it compelling. Thinking of these uprisings as a "Twitter Revolution" gives us an easy narrative: modern, free-thinking youth use new technology to overthrow the old guard. It makes the story interesting for an audience who otherwise has no reason to care.
"Keep it up, Egyptians! Or Iranians. Whatever, they're basically the same people, right?"
But this isn't a new phenomenon. In 2001, a revolution in the Philippines was credited to the power of the new technology of text messaging, not years of civil unrest. Go back further and you'll find that we gave the audio cassette credit for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Or there was Tienanmen Square, where the modern wonder that was the fax machine was going to help beat China's oppressive government.
This was going to end communism.
There's yet to be a newsworthy event we haven't linked to some buzzword we're familiar with; it simplifies things, and helps us put a human face on the story. It's hard for us to identify with an impoverished old man in Syria who's getting pushed around by the government, because we have no idea what that's like. Picturing some middle-class guy with a boring office job sticking it to the man with Facebook is a lot easier, since most of us are middle-class people with boring office jobs who dream of fighting the system with our edgy status updates.
And not only is the idea of a revolution powered by social networking accessible, it's also kind of appealing. It's nice to think that websites we use every day are helping improve the world, because that's a lot better than thinking about how Facebook's only contribution to society is to tell our friends how totally drunk we got last night.
"I had 12 beers last night and I threw up on a cop, but I was
only doing it to express solidarity with the people of Moldova."
Which leads to our final point ...
Another reason we connect Western technology to events around the world seems to be that it simply lets us brag about how awesome western technology is. The effect is even worse now that the technology in question is the Internet, because if there's one thing the internet enjoys more than pornography it's pretending to help causes.
Above: Fighting the Revolution.
That's why we love the idea of a revolution powered by social networking -- we can't fly down to Egypt to take part in a street protest, but we can hit "like" on a Facebook page that's organizing one. All it takes is one click, and suddenly you're an activist! Sure, it won't actually accomplish anything, but it does let the world know how much you care.
"Yeah, not any old guy would make his Twitter background green in support of Iran,
but not everyone wants to make a difference like I do."
Slacktivism is nothing new, but it crosses the line from "pointless, but well-intentioned" to "jaw-droppingly delusional" once we claim more credit than we're due. In the wake of the revolution in Egypt it wasn't enough that the protesters used our social networking sites -- we had to pat ourselves on the back for teaching young Egyptians to use Google and Facebook. We're not sure whether it was the "type what you want to find into the little bar" or "don't get distracted by the thousands of results about tits" part they were having trouble with, but either way they apparently needed America's help to sort things out.
"So, you're saying that no matter what I type in, I'll get pictures of boobies? Thanks, America!"
So we have the Gene Sharp affair, where the New York Times made the prominent political scientist sound like a modern-day Laurence of Arabia who taught ignorant dissidents around the developing world how to revolt -- an idea that was promptly mocked by Egyptian bloggers. Likewise, if you ask either 4chan or Julian Assange what they contributed to the revolution in Tunisia, they're quick to claim credit for the whole damn thing.
"Yes, fine, I guess those protesters helped, too. A little bit."
When you stop to think about it, it's actually pretty insulting. We were quick to label Tunisia's recent uprising the "Twitter Revolution" and the "Wikileaks Revolution," both of which sound asinine when you remember that Tunisia's protests began after Mohamed Bouazizi, a disgruntled street vendor, set himself on fire. Maybe we should be giving him some credit, not ourselves. Then again, the "Holy Shit, That Guy Just Set Himself on Fire, What the Fuck, Man?! Revolution" doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well.
For more reasons why this whole social media thing may not be so cool, check out 6 Things Social Networking Sites Need to Stop Doing and 5 Wacky Internet Pranks That Can Get You Jail Time.