Picking a fight with Clay Shirky

There is an interesting comment that Clay Shirky has just posted to GigaOm:

No one believes social media _causes_ otherwise complacent citizens to become angry enough to take to the streets. It’s a convenient straw man for the skeptics, because, as an obviously ridiculous narrative, it’s easy to refute.


I guess I must be the skeptic touting this straw man argument, because Clay told me the same thing over Twitter. What's most intriguing about this comment is Clay's deliberate use of the term "social media". I've noticed that whenever it comes to debates about the Internet & democratization, this is now his new preferred term (see his Foreign Affairs piece "The Political Power of Social Media").

On Clay's account, "social media" is just a tool that people use to coordinate. So, saying that people want a revolution because of "social media" is akin to saying that people want a revolution because of the telephone. Fair enough and - hold your breath! - I actually agree with Clay on this one.

But this is a very sly recasting of the terms of the debate on Clay's part; the debate about the Internet's impact on democratization has never been about social media only. For example, the impact of social media on social mobilization plays a very minor part in my overall argument; I'm much more interested in understanding the long-term impact of new technologies on authoritarianism and here I also have to consider how it may boost their attempts at surveillance, propaganda, censorship and even the trivialization of public discourse.

A substantial intellectual chunk of this broader debate has been devoted to trying to understand whether giving people the ability to access banned or highly critical information will politicize them in the long term. It's not an argument about mobilization during protests - it's an argument about whether the Internet boosts the odds that such mobilization might eventually happen in the long term.

This is why, I think, we spend so much time debating what to do about circumvention tools that help to bypass censorship. Will giving everyone in China access to a technology like Tor have the desired outcomes of politicizing the masses and enticing the revolution or will the Chinese just use Tor to download porn and get disengaged from politics altogether? Mind you, it's not just about facilitating access to Twitter and Facebook - the tools of social organization- it's also about facilitating access to sites of Human Rights Watch or Radio Free Asia.

Anyone who has seen reports about Tunisia's "WikiLeaks Revolution" would know that those accounts mostly focus on the role that the cable revelations about Tunisia played in enticing the protests (this is an account I don't agree with, if it's not yet obvious). To suggest that a term like a "WikiLeaks Revolution" does not also celebrate - perhaps, implicitly - the factors most commonly associated with the Internet (its resilience against censorship, its spirit of mutual collaboration, etc) would be extremely disingenuous. When people say that events in Tunisia were a "WikILeaks Revolution", they are consciously or subconsciously cheering the fact that there is this former-hacker guy Assange who used the Internet to do the unthinkable. If this is not what is celebrated by the term "WikiLeaks Revolution", then it doesn't have any meaning at all.

WikiLeaks, alas, is not "social media" - so it doesn't meet Clay's rigid definition. But if you broaden the terms of the debate to the Internet proper - and those are the terms that are most interesting to me - you are bound to notice that there are plenty of pundits and analysts celebrating the power of the Internet to politicize future protesters - not only to help them organize. This, by the way, is the same argument that was used by plenty of neocons in the wake of the Soviet collapse: it was assumed that the Western radio informed Soviet citizens about the superior value of Western goods - and the Soviets eventually rebelled. Apologies for self-promotion, but anyone who thinks these are not real intellectual narratives being pimped in Washington DC should take a look at my book, where they are extensively documented (including in the 70-page bibliography!)

Here is just an excerpt from Thomas Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree", p. 66:

"Put all of this democratization of information together and what it means is that the days when governments could isolate their people from understanding what life was like beyond their borders or even beyond their village are over. Life outside can't be trashed and made to look worse than it is...On the Internet people are ... uploading and downloading ideologies. In a few years, every citizen of the world will be able to comparison shop between his country and his own government and the one next door".

Now debunking Thomas Friedman may seem less gratifying than debunking a social media guru like Clay Shirky - but Friedman is a much better proxy for what people in Washington really think. Anyone who has looked at his columns over the past 5 years would see that he hasn't really changed his view on the power of the Internet.

So, yes, we can have an intelligent debate about the virtues and downsides of social media - but I would not like us to lose sight of the broader intellectual debate about the Internet and democratization, especially in this post-Cablegate era. After all, the debate we are having in Washington is not about the future of "The Social Media Freedom Agenda", it's a debate about the future of the "The Internet Freedom Agenda".

Is Clay himself making a straw man argument here? 

UPDATE: Clay has posted an update to his original comment.