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Opinion

Why the tweet will never replace the street

Activists in the Middle East and elsewhere are turning to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to fuel protest, but the brick-and mortar public square remains vital in the struggle for democracy.

By Ariel Sabar / March 21, 2011



Washington

Lost in all the breathless tributes to Facebook and Twitter as catalysts for the recent Middle East protests is a far older and more vital form of social media: the actual, brick-and-mortar public square. The e–activist may have replaced the pamphleteer, but it was only once thousands of people massed in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Tunisia’s Casbah Square, and Bahrain’s Pearl Square that the movements showed themselves as something more than a tinkling of keystrokes.

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The abiding role of public squares as battlegrounds for democracy is particularly notable in the age of WikiLeaks, YouTube campaign scandals, and Web petitions. The idea that we no longer need to leave the glow of our laptops to hold leaders accountable is comforting and dangerous. Why bother, when with a few taps on a screen we can microblog about corruption and “Like” the good guy’s Facebook page?

The protests in the Middle East are a reminder that real change still unfolds in what Greeks called the agora. It is in public spaces that human beings, exchanging ideas and feeding off one another’s passions and expertise, begin to feel part of something bigger than themselves.

People-powered democratic revolts - do they last?

Tellingly, the protests in Tahrir Square swelled only after Egypt shut down the Internet. A young, tech-savvy Egyptian activist told The New York Times that it was precisely the Web blackout that drove him into the streets. “Tell you what, I didn’t miss Twitter, I can confidently say that Tahrir was a street Twitter. Almost everyone sharing in a political discussion, trying to announce something or circulate news, even if they are rumors, simply retweets.”

Public squares as seat of revolution

News reports described demonstrators in the squares operating with a leaderless, decentralized efficiency more often associated with, well, the Internet. Though they lacked central leadership or formal means of coordination, protesters found ingenious ways to divide their labor. Some ferried in food and first aid, while others manned checkpoints and strung electrical cable. When President Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down, activists painstakingly cleaned up Tahrir Square in a kind of homage to its place in the uprising – and perhaps in future ones.

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