Right now my Twitter stream is full of tweets about the protests in Egypt, mostly retweeted information. It’s easy to get caught up in it. As I type this, protesters and journalists are being beaten up, shot at. Twitter is full of personal stories: video of arrests, messages from increasingly-worried protesters, notes about the international response. It’s hard to read something like this:
“@bencnn: Government-sanctioned mass lynch underway in Tahrir Square. #jan25 #Egypt”
and not feel like I must do something, right now.
I felt this way, to an extent, when the protests in Iran, Thailand, Greece, and Tunisia were happening. In some cases, I sat there through the night following a hashtag, retweeting now and then, reading the stream of articles and analysis that other Twitter users linked to. Today, I don’t really know what’s happening in Greece, or Thailand, or Iran, or Tunisia.
The people I followed during those times, people who were tweeting from the middle of the situation, sometimes still write something about the political situation, but it’s not enough to overwhelm my Twitter stream, to make me feel immersed, there. Life moves on, and there’s simply not enough time to stay up-to-date on everything.
This makes me curious: what does it mean when we (Australians? Westerners?) follow these struggles in other parts of the world? Perhaps it’s simply a particularly gripping new form of entertainment, a spectacle that is all the more engaging because we can feel like we’re part of it. Perhaps it actually leads, through an accumulation of small efforts, to concrete benefits for the people whose struggles we follow at such a distance and with such immediacy.
I also want to think more about the ways in which difference is (or might be) effaced through this process. My quick search turned up literacy rates of 83% for men and 59% for women (as of 2005), and around 20,136,000 Internet users among a population of around 80,471,869*, helped along by Egypt’s Free Internet Initiative**. The number of Twitter users based in Egypt also seems to be quite small. It will come, I assume, as absolutely no shock when I write that those tweeting from Egypt are not likely to be wholly representative of Egypt’s population. (The same would be true of tweets from any protest, including in Western states.)
The tweets we read, whether we follow a hashtag or particular users, are likely to confirm our feelings that the protesters are “like us”, because the information we’re getting is usually in English, written by people who read many of the same websites as us, who are at least on one level part of this shared culture that we are all building online. Recognising that similarity, the bond that comes from knowing that people like us are suffering right now, can be immensely powerful. There are so many areas, including the Australian debate around asylum seekers, where I wish there was a more widespread recognition that other people are, in important ways, like us, and they are suffering.
However, there is something about the way in which difference disappears in this process that makes me a little nervous. Because it is also important to recognise that many of those involved in these protests differ significantly from us in their outlooks, in what they want from life, in what they hope to gain in terms of political change. I’m not entirely sure yet why this matters, but I believe that it does. Perhaps because it might influence the ways in which we try to engage with others’ struggles, perhaps because it is important for our own understanding of the situation. Perhaps for a different reason entirely.
The question that I think I am most interested in is: are there ways we can engage in these struggles from a distance ethically and usefully, contributing to and learning from them while remembering that distance (and difference) matters?
* These figures are courtesy of the CIA World Factbook, and are a little off as the Internet user estimate is from 2009 while the population estimate is from 2010.
** Readers may allow themselves a cynical laugh at this name, given the circumstances.