How Twitter Makes the Internet More Local
Discussion of the political impact of social media has focused on the power of mass protests to topple governments. In fact, social media's real potential lies in supporting civil society and the public sphere -- which will produce change over years and decades, not weeks or months.
The U.S. embassy in Cairo's Twitter feed is once again embroiled in controversy. As the episode shows, tweeting can occasionally lead to trouble. But social media is good for governments and for citizens. For officials to ignore or disdain it would amount to professional malpractice.
A mass of Twitter followers. (Brajeshwar / flickr)
Last year marked the 15th anniversary of "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace," a manifesto by the poet and political activist John Perry Barlow that presented a vision of cyberspace as being "both everywhere and nowhere," outside the control of the governments of "the industrial world." Today, many consider online social media as having ushered in the "global village" prophesied by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, connecting everyone and anyone and giving them the power to promulgate social movements and engender democracy.
It only took a few years for China to contradict Barlow by developing its so-called Great Firewall, which has proved quite capable of blocking undesirable foreign Web sites and plenty of domestic ones, too, as it did earlier this week, when Beijing strangled the hugely popular microblogging sites Weibo.com and t.qq.com. But controlling the Internet is hardly a Chinese phenomenon. Other governments have quelled online activity during moments of unrest, most notably, Egypt at the beginning of the revolution there last year. As recent history shows, the world's governments, Barlow's "weary giants of flesh and steel," can still impose borders online...