Tech legacy capable of social change

· Dec 6, 2011 Tweet

Yesterday, Twitter released a list of its most-prominent hashtags for 2011. The two most popular, #egypt and #tigerblood, were a testament to the contradictions of one of the world’s most popular social network websites.

Unless you use TMZ as a primary news source, it goes without saying that the story of the Egyptian dictator stepping down as president after an unprecedented mass movement was more important than a visibly troubled Charlie Sheen signing up for Twitter. The Arab Spring and the mass movements it has sparked in all corners of the world will eventually become the events for which 2011 is most remembered.

But that does not mean technology journalists should overestimate the importance of social media in Arab Spring-related uprisings.

Many publications or blogs will spend a significant amount of their time writing for the next few weeks about what 2011 meant for technology’s relationship with mass movements and politics in the wake of Twitter’s announcement. Between the Arab Spring and this week’s recent anti-government protests in Moscow, technology indisputably has brought mass movements to a global scale in a way never before seen.

But overestimating the effect of Twitter or Facebook on the movement in Tahrir Square is easy for Americans. Understandably, we want to believe that two of the United States’ greatest recent inventions could have contributed to the largest revolutionary uprising since the 19th century.

In reality, Twitter has not been nearly as instrumental, especially in other Arab Spring nations like Syria and Libya, as most American media sources describe it. History likely will acknowledge the importance of social media and the Internet, but it will mostly be an afterthought mentioned for one sentence in textbooks.

Still, the prominence of Twitter in world movements suggests a significant change in the way Americans, or anyone who uses the hashtag #firstworldproblems, should think of technology.

One of the most difficult aspects of being a technology enthusiast is the constant fear of being too materialistic. In the long run, a passion for computers, smart phones or social networks does not really mean much more than which team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl. This is a common conundrum for anyone who claims to be interested in the social issues of poverty or oppression but still walks around carrying an iPad or iPhone 4S.

The top hashtags this year indicate a turning point in the online world from one characterized by scattershot gossip and irrelevancy to one of activism and engagement. Sheen’s catchphrases may have caught on for a brief period, but many of us had forgotten he existed until Twitter released its list – Egypt has remained fresh in our memory.

Because of this, I think it’s time to stop relating materialism with our, albeit constant, connections to technology. Sure, Steve Jobs shunned philanthropy and did not really seem to care about anything but Apple Computer, but his innovations truly have created a form of communication we’ve never before seen.

Perhaps the most touching proof of this comes with the recently-released documentary “Life in a Day,” which details the lives of folks around the world who submitted videos to YouTube on one day in July.

A young Peruvian boy named Abel takes us to his house in one of the clips and pulls out a small laptop given to him through the “One Laptop Per Child” initiative. He describes it, unsurprisingly, as one of his favorite things, but then goes on to explain why.

“On Wikipedia, there are stories: history, math, science, religion. … It has everything,” Abel says to the camera. “It’s a giant library.”

Just as not every Egyptian has a Twitter-capable phone, not every impoverished child has a laptop. But a young Peruvian child talking about his love for Wikipedia (I’m with you there, Abel) says a great deal about the powerful reach of the Internet for educational purposes, which inevitably leads to waves of change throughout the world.

Soon enough, I’m confident the drivel that emerges from Sheen’s Twitter feed will be replaced by news of more effective leadership coming to power in some of the world’s most dangerous and oppressive countries. We should not thank them too much, but we can point to Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia as significant agents of the coming change.

Ryan Rainey ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in journalism and Latin American studies. His Twitter name is @ryan_rainey.

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This article was published Dec 6, 2011 at 7:59 pm and last updated Dec 6, 2011 at 7:59 pm

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