What Happens When Everyone Has a Voice

I’ve been following the recent and ongoing protests in Tunisia and Egypt, as I’m sure many of you have. (Watch Al Jazeera English online for perhaps the most comprehensive coverage of what’s happening now in Egypt.) Given my interest in social media, I’ve been particularly interested in the role that social media (Facebook, Twitter, and the like) have played in these protests. Malcolm Gladwell, Evgeny Morozov, and others have argued that social media, while certainly used by those protesting in Tunisia and Egypt, haven’t been critical to the growth of these protest movements. Other commentators, including Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman have argued that social media have played very important roles. Zuckerman, for instance, points to the combination of social media and more traditional news media in the Tunisian protests:

In Tunisia, protests started with the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, and initially were confined to Sidi Bouzid, a small and relatively disconnected city. The protests got attention across the country and throughout the Arab world via Al Jazeera, which aggressively covered the protests, despite the fact that the network’s reporters had been banned from the country. Al J leaned heavily on social media, reproducing images and video from Facebook, which is widely used (19%+ percent of Tunisian population uses Facebook) in the country. Al Jazeera is widely watched in Tunisia, and images of people taking to the streets in Sidi Bouzid helped spark the protests that spread throughout the country and eventually to Tunis, where they toppled the government. I don’t think social media was the prime actor, but social media amplified by broadcast helped tell Tunisians that their fellow citizens were taking to the streets.

I heard a BBC interview with Clay Shirky on my favorite podcast, the World’s Technology Podcast, last night where he made a similar argument. Here’s the quote that stood out to me (emphasis mine):

Well, there is a kind of a progression of knowledge from — each person in a society has realized a certain fact, right, like the Ben Ali government is corrupt.  To each person, then realizing, “Oh, you know what, everybody else has figured this out as well.”  And then when it becomes a public fact as it famously did in Tunisia on the 18th of December, right.  When everybody realizes that everybody’s still thinking the same thing at the same time, that’s the moment where real political change happens.

I’ve spoken in the past about the use of classroom response systems to connect with participatory culture (and will be doing so again at Georgetown University next month). What happened in Tunisia is perhaps one of the most impressive displays of participatory culture in recent memory. Not for a second do I want to say that what happens in a college classroom is somehow equivalent to the ousting of a country’s dictator, but it’s worth noting that participatory culture can lead to pretty amazing things. Classroom response systems are tools that allow instructors to tap into participatory culture in a useful way in the classroom. When students see the results of a clicker question or the comments shared on a backchannel, they find out what their peers are thinking. To paraphrase Shirky, that’s the moment where real student engagement happens.

Image: “megaphone head man,” looking4poetry, Flickr (CC)

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