A Postscript to the Previous Post

Tom Friedman raised a number of questions about the power of the social media in a recent op-ed column. Writing about a conversation he had with Wael Ghonim, who played a very important role in the Egyptian revolt. Friedman began with this question, “Does it turn out that social media is better at breaking things than at making things?” And then answered it.

Recently, an important voice answered this question with a big “ yes.” That voice was Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee whose anonymous Facebook page helped to launch the Tahrir Square revolution in early 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — but then failed to give birth to a true democratic alternative.

I recently noted Sherry Turkle’s negative response to the widespread use of mobile devices. She found, in her research, that such use diminished the capability of young people to hold meaningful conversations. The Friedman column makes the same point, but in a far different, but important setting. Ghonim, now working in the US, provides a number of reasons that the social media failed in coalescing the aroused people into a politically viable mass. The fifth item in his analysis is remarkable similar to Turkle’s view. Here is his response to Friedman’s question.

“First, we don’t know how to deal with rumors. Rumors that confirm people’s biases are now believed and spread among millions of people.” Second, “We tend to only communicate with people that we agree with, and thanks to social media, we can mute, un-follow and block everybody else. Third, online discussions quickly descend into angry mobs. … It’s as if we forget that the people behind screens are actually real people and not just avatars.

“And fourth, it became really hard to change our opinions. Because of the speed and brevity of social media, we are forced to jump to conclusions and write sharp opinions in 140 characters about complex world affairs. And once we do that, it lives forever on the Internet.”

Fifth, and most crucial, he said, “today, our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations. … It’s as if we agreed that we are here to talk at each other instead of talking with each other.”

Technology interposes itself between people when it is being used. Communication devices, by their nature, interfere with the ability of the parties to be fully present, thereby excluding context and the development of meaningful relationships. Exactly what Ghonim observed.