The Revolution will be Tweeted and Facebooked as well as televised.

Let's stop at a bookstore/cafe next!

I’ve been hanging back for the last week and watching the exciting developments in North Africa (Tunisia and Egypt) and the Middle East (Yemen, and now I hear that in Jordan King Abdullah had to dismiss his Prime Minister and cabinet.)  I haven’t written anything here before about these current events because I am completely out of my depth outside of North American history and am just trying to read and learn what I can.  I ran into a colleague today and we reminisced about how like 1989 it all feels–we hope it’s the Eastern European 1989, not the Tiananmen Square 1989, of course.)

Although everyone is more excited about the uses of new technologies in the twentieth- and twenty-first-century revolutions, I’m struck more by the similarities in them than the differences.  Back in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, everyone was excited by the role of the fax machine.  Last year in Iran’s failed revolution, it was Facebook and Twitter, and these social media tools are prominent in driving world-wide interest in what’s going on in today’s revolutions.  I’m teaching Eighteenth Century America, which is my retooled American Revolution class, and what strikes me is the role of cities in just about every revolution I can think of:  the American and French Revolutions, the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the Russian Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, and all of the Revolution of 1989.  (I know so little about the Chinese Revolution–and my grasp of other world revolutions is pretty weak, so correct me please if any of this looks wrong to you.)  Most of the histories of these revolutions are essentially urban histories.  To the barricades, citoyennes!

Paul Revere's engraving of the "Boston Massacre"

Cities are centers for both economic and intellectual commerce, as well as political centers or capitol cities.  Cities remain the place where people meet and share ideas, and it still seems like it’s important that this happen face-to-face in order to bring on a revolution.  In spite of the widespread use of social media in the revolutions of 2010 and 2011, it still seems like the revolution happens where you have a concentration of mobilized human beings, as opposed to Facebook “friends” all “liking” something.  In this respect, then, Tweeting, IM’ing, blogging, and the like are more like television than we might have thought:  they’re more useful for broadcasting the revolution once  it’s underway, and are apparently insufficient to bring about the revolution on their own.

25 thoughts on “The Revolution will be Tweeted and Facebooked as well as televised.

  1. Someone commented yesterday that a reason this has blown up in Egypt is a rise in food prices / lack of food. This is another common aspect of many revolutions: the fall of Communism in 1989, the Bread Riots in 1789 France and in 1917 Russia … all started at least in part due to food scarcities.


  2. The French Revolution also teaches us, however, that cities, or especially capital cities, can pretty undemocratically (however you might define the latter word) come to be presumed–both in contemporary terms and historiographically–coextensive with the revolution itself and with the thing that is being revolutionized. And historians seem somewhat partial to them, whether for reasons of archival access or perhaps just broad cultural affinity.

    I was thinking about this yesterday in the context of wondering what everybody else in Egypt who was not in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and a few other places, were thinking about this. And what an instance of regime change forced by shoes on the ground in Liberation Square might have to offer to or for people down Nile as far as say Aswan? No particular opinions on this, just curiosity.

    On technologies, 1989 was the last year before I was “on” e-mail, and e-mail will probably for me always be the real killer app. I’ve been tracking Americans coming out of Egypt, and it still seems amazing to me to learn that someone landed at JFK “a few minute ago…”

    Quaere: What would have happened if the Chouans were using Foursquare, while all the Jacobins were on Yelp?


  3. Lets not get too nostalgic about the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe – given that they led into a series of wars in the Balkans that killed well over 100,000 people.


  4. Another resonance I pick up on is the role of any kind of media, especially as it becomes a conduit for less professional politicians or courtiers and more as a way for some of the ordinary people to participate. If you look at the 17th century revolution in England, say, you see the early pamphlets and newsletters circulating. See Sommerville’s “The News Revolution in England” or Zaret’s “Origins of Democratic Culture” for some striking parallels.

    Periphery and centres, yes. Crisis elements in prices or food availability, yes. But getting the word out is also a key element, whether it’s circulating manuscript letters or printed petitions.


  5. As a Europeanist, I too am struck by the echoes of Europe ’89. If Tunisia is Hungary ’89, will Cairo be Berlin? or Timsoara? I hope it’s more like Prague – a velvet revolution. But the echoes… oh, they do echo!!


  6. I think I’m with Janice on this one, Historiann, While Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking tools are obviously, as you say, “insufficient to bring about the revolution on their own,” they nonetheless have a vital role to play in organizing and communicating about social movements. Not sufficient, but still necessary. Tom Watson has a good piece up on this subject today. He’s no mindless cheerleader for the world-transforming powers of new technologies, but he thinks we should give them their due. As, I guess, do I.


  7. Roxie–I agree completely, but as Janice suggests, there were successful technologies for circulating information and organizing people that predate 1989. (Circular letters, pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, inflammatory engravings like the one above, etc.)

    I didn’t mean to suggest that the new social media were irrelevant–just that they function more like a lot of old(er) media, and that their value to the rest of the world is the immediacy of the view on the street they provide (long before the TV cameras could get set up.)


  8. reminisced about how like 1989 it all feels

    It might not be out of place to think back a decade earlier. We tend to take the word democracy to mean a western-style republic but I’m not sure that’s only way this can play out.


  9. Abject poverty will continue in Egypt no matter who rules. The country is underdeveloped, way too religious and the majority is uneducated.

    My very partial Polish roots and my strong labor union support make me see me see 1989 as the revolution of Lech Wałęsa, with no higher education, at the Gdańsk Shipyards.

    As for the Middle Eastern euphoria, I believe Egypt is where the revolution will culminate. Jordan, Yemen and other countries will be unaffected.


  10. Historiann, I don’t think your post dismisses the new social media. Far from it! But having taught my graduate seminar on media history from 1500-present, I was hammering into my students’ heads the need to toss away the concept of a “fixed” news media.

    One of the books I read for background, “Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture” by Lisa Gitelman, excellent encapsulated this viewpoint. There’s not a firm, institutional media — we’ve been seduced by the relatively smooth transition from print to radio and television into thinking that.

    Oh, and I agree that harkening back to 1989 is helpful. I began teaching soon after that and it was easy to get students in my modern Western Civ course excited about Communism or the Cold War seeing it “end” in their eyes. Now? I have to teach 1989 as a distant bit of history when I finish the modern survey!


  11. I wrote a paper on college on the May 1968 student protests in Paris. I focused on the graffiti that the protesters used as slogans, protest, and especially as a way to organize. In the process they actually created a new vocabulary. I imagine that the new social media in protests and revolutions today work in almost the same way.


  12. My middle easternist colleague worries that this is 1978 Iran rather than 1989…

    Cities are important because to overthrow a regime you need lots of people — and as we learned in 2009 in Iran, even that is not enough. But if you look at France in 1789, there are also a series of rural risings that push the revolution in the August days. The rural people have other grievances, but they are also important.

    Hmmm. Maybe time for a comparative revolutions course.


  13. At this point, anything could happen, but I seriously doubt that Mubarak would have announced his “retirement” plans tonight without the week of protests and today’s massive march. We’ll see if he stays around for 7 months or goes sooner–and I don’t know which would be the better option in the long run for Egypt’s stability and its long-term prospects.

    It’s exciting, but you’re all right, of course: anything could happen. It could turn out to be 1979 or the bad parts of 1989 again. But the successive waves of protests in different countries gives me hope that there’s a real movement towards something good. At least, it’s inspiring to see a real movement for democratic change that’s not at the tip of an (American-made) spear. After the last decade’s misuse of American military power and global influence, it’s so heartening to see these indigenous uprisings.


  14. Another form of ‘media’ that was important in spreading political messages in the past was song and story- so an oral culture of news transmission- where rhyme and music helped make the news memorable and repeatable- Robert Darnton has a new book out on this Poetry and the Police. There is also a fab story about ‘chain mail’ style news tranmission in Ireland in 19thC, where each person told 4 people, who each told 4- and the message spread across the whole country in just over 2 days (the message wasn’t political, but was monitored by the police who thought it was a dry-run for an uprising).

    I would imagine one of the reasons that revolutions happen in cities is also because that is where ‘the state’- ie courts, parliaments, government buildings, town halls etc- are located. So, if ‘the people’ want to ‘speak to power’ they have to come to them. Here again, Irish history is interesting- so in the 1798 rebellion, you have quite a decent rural uprising, but it fails to overturn the administration in Dublin. A hundred years later, the revolutionaries learn from this by setting up their own institutions (courts, government etc) and operating them parallel to the state structures- in addition to physical revolution.


  15. Good points, FA. Song and story as social networking!

    It’s amusing to see the conservative commentators and editorialists come out pessimistically against democratic revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, when once (2001-06) they embraced the idea of “regime change” imposed by the U.S. military. How different their tune would be if George W. Bush were still president–they’d be crowing about the fruits of the Iraq War! This reinforces my belief that right-wingers are really just authoritarians: “Revolution” is OK if it’s imposed via military occupation by a foreign power, but people power on the streets is de facto unstable, dangerous, and must be tamped down.

    How un-American!


  16. Historiann,

    I’m still thinking about the role of communications technology in social revolutions of our current day. I’m not sure what I think about them after Iran. I might suggest that if you are thinking about the creation of identity politics what happened in the 1920s in Turkey is also a model that should be understood. This was a political movement built both on expanding literacy to to the people but also on destroying the communications models of the Ottoman empire.

    On the subject of your Revolutions class… I really hope you aren’t leaving out the Haitian Revolution. I find the Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past a good way to introduce students to ideas about historical memory. That is why it is that Haiti gets lost lists of big revolutions that dominated the 19th century given its impact on both France and the United States.


  17. Long time reader–thanks for the stimulating posts and for hosting lively and engaging discussions, Historiann!

    For me these events bring to mind the Baltic Revolutions of the late 1980s and early 1990s and particularly the question of how Baltic dissenters managed to orchestrate demonstrations that remained, for the most part, non-violent.


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  19. What you say about the role of cities in spawning revolutions is spot-on. It also applies to the Civil Rights Movement in the US, which is probably the closest thing we’ve had to a revolution on our own soil since the Civil War.

    Before World War II, African-Americans lived mainly in the rural South. The war accelerated a trend that began around the end of World War I: that of African-Americans moving to the cities of the North and West. It’s a lot easier to gather the mass of people needed for an effective demonstration when large numbers of them are concentrated in a few urban neighborhoods than when they’re spread out across a couple hundred counties in a bunch of states.


  20. New England Nat: Of course! If changing the language isn’t “destroying communications models,” I don’t know what is. Mao did essentially the same thing with his so-called Cultural Revolution.

    I’m still not sure whether Ataturk was a visionary or pure-and-simple nutcase. On one hand, he wanted to free Turkey of the corruption of the Ottoman Empire and the stagnation of much of the Middle East-North Africa-South Asia region; on the other, he wanted to return Turkish culture to its “roots.” (I’m always suspicious of people with such motives for much the same reason I don’t trust religious “fundamentalists.”)

    The funny thing is that when you and a Turk greet each other, you say “Merhaba,” which is an Arabic term. Maybe, in the end, starting a Turkish equivalent of l’Academie Francaise was as effective at changing people’s thinking as the French Institute was at stopping Parisians and Lyonnais from saying “computer” and “mouse.”

    So people were left, as they were in China, with whatever notions they’d always had but no language in which they could express it–sort of like Caliban, turned inside out.


  21. As a matter of fact, French Revolution is one of the bloodiest and most brutal revolutions in history. It resulted in the end of the monarchy, the execution of king and queen, and thousands of innocent people killed in the process.

    The uprising was not only a revolt of the poor and starving French citizens, but also of the bourgeoisie, or the class of people who did not have any privileges. For example, the National Assembly elected in 1791 included 544 property owners, of which 41% were rich peasants and 28% were wealthy bourgeois.



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