The unprecedented protests in Egypt (indeed, the whole unfolding “Jasmine Revolution”) has riveted world attention.  In its midst, as in Iran and Tunisia before, the new digital and “social” media, seem to be playing a role.

But is this another “net delusion?”  Are we making too much of the role of these technologies?  It is worth considering, but a particular articulation of skepticism caught my eye.  On the January 28 Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC) Richard Engel made it surprisingly categorical:

I’ve been listening to a lot of analysts and have been plugged in over this. Keep talking about Twitter and Facebook. This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook.

Engel, a real old Egypt hand, fluent in Arabic, had a valid point that the real causes of such events are people’s felt needs and political and social situations.

But the rhetorical moment here is telling.  Who would claim that something like social media could move people to action irrespective of real social and political conditions?

I have noted in other contexts a tendency for media people (particularly journalists) to over-expect and over-determine media power.  This may be related to their own subjective experience within the media.  There is an assumption of agency at the core of journalism, and it is possible that some journalists have a hard time thinking of media “effects” in other than the most instrumental “strong media terms.”  So, for Engel, was it that he simply couldn’t conceive of Facebook and Twitter (or other media) efficacy outside of a very instrumentalist framework?

He, himself went on to a rather nuanced and sophisticated description of the role he saw for these media practices:

Now, the protests and the Twitter and all the social networking stuff helps. It helps inspire people, coordinate, but that’s not why they’re out. They’re out because of mismanagement and a system that is really gotten so far away from its people.

The complexity and subtlety of mediations of experience and social action–such as that he describes–is the sort of material and the sort of perspective that critical media scholarship wishes to bring to bear.  Many media scholars lament the lack of a substantive dialogue between journalists and scholars of media about the way these things work.  Such a conversation might well help us to a broader and more substantive appreciation of how these things are working in a moment of great social change.

Public information and public discourse deserves better than arch and categorical binaries (“the social media are powerful” vs “they play no role”).

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