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In Michel Houellebecq’s novel “The Possibility of an Island,” the main protagonist, Daniel, is confronted with a future that is defined by nuclear holocaust and decay in which the only means of communication is a Facebook-esque device. Face-to-face contact is off-limits for the regenerated clones of humans that inhabit this dystopian nightmare.

As with many authors, sociologists and anthropologists who have addressed the issue of human interaction through media, Houllebecq’s portrayal of these media interfaces veers toward the negative as machine replaces oral tradition. New media in Daniel’s world are confining and dull, leaving little scope for action, even if they do allow for the exchange of messages.

Houellebecq’s vision is not dissimilar to the views of communication theorists such as Marshall McLuhan who assert that as media evolve, they simultaneously devour humankind and drive our new ways of thinking and communicating as our agency is diminished. This theory coexists with audience theory based on extensive ethnographic research focusing on radio and television, in particular, that routinely comes to similar conclusions of passivity and a lack of scope in activity among users of media.

If these mostly negative perceptions of the extent to which the user can actively utilize media form the basis of our understanding of these processes, how do new media change our ability to act? And how do we act as a result?

Perhaps the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa can provide answers. Where information flows in countries such as Libya and Egypt were previously defined by regime-controlled television stations, censored newspapers and highly regulated airwaves, the Internet is now driving new possibilities for dissemination, action and choice.

In Egypt in particular, news media attributed the success of the uprising and the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule to Facebook and Twitter. Reports noted that Wifi users close to the epicenter of protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unlocked their signals allowing 3G wireless devices greater access to the Internet to help coordinate demonstrations. It was no surprise that the main movements were generated in the cities, where the Internet is more prevalent than in outlying areas.

As one Egyptian living in America noted on Facebook: “People have been twitting [sic] every step of the way and I have been reading and watching as if I’m walking side by side. Totally and absolutely amazing.”

Yet comments such as these highlight the limits of the roles played by these new media tools and perhaps the extent to which claims of new media revolutions are in fact overblown. While Twitter and Facebook allow news of recent events to escape these countries for the consumption of the international news media and its audience, to what extent was this same content recirculated within the countries in which it originated? This represents the test of whether these new media forms did indeed drive, and come to form, the glue binding active participation.

After realising the effect that blogging and social media sites were having in galvanizing demonstrations, the authorities in Egypt promptly shut down the five main Internet service providers and hampered the normal operation of mobile phone networks.

The counter-response was borne of further evolution of new media, and the result was the possibility of new ways in which users could connect and remain active. Twitter developed a service in which people could phone in their microblogs using speak2tweet.

In Tunisia, another country that saw the overthrow of a longstanding autocrat in President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, television news stations used information lifted directly from Facebook to report what was happening.

While speak2tweet allows the producer of each message to blog without use of the Internet, to hear that same message the audience must follow a link on the Twitter website, meaning an Internet connection is still the key to completion of this chain of communication. During the Egyptian blackout, no such connection existed.

There is evidence to suggest that much of the content coming out of protests in North Africa and the Middle East was consumed in much greater quantities in the West where the digital appetite is much greater than in the countries in which these flows were created, mostly due to higher population coverage and faster Internet speeds.

Sysomos, a company that tracks trends in new media, found that only 14,642 Twitter users identified their location as either Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen during the period in which protests were taking place in all three countries. And while crisis-related tweets soared from 122,319 between Jan. 16-29 to more than 1.3 million during the subsequent week as demonstrations intensified in these countries, there is little evidence to suggest that the majority were consumed within these same nations.

Arabic Democrati, a Twitter user describing him or herself as a Libyan revolutionary from Tripoli (“We report what we see in Triploi. We don’t want autocracy, tyranny and despotism”), ranks as the second-highest ranking tweeter under the tag ‘Libya’ with just over 2,400 followers. U.S. presenter-cum-megastar Ryan Seacrest, by contrast, boasts more than 4.1 million followers. For all the media attention that has idolized the likes of Twitter and Facebook and their roles in these recent uprisings, traffic in the countries concerned is simply not that high suggesting actual influence of these sites on what has happened appears exaggerated.

The International Telecommunications Union reported last year that just under 25 percent of people living in Arab states were connected to the Internet, and that figure plummets to less than 10 percent of people living in Africa. In Egypt, penetration was at 21.2 percent in February, with just 5 percent Facebook penetration as of the end of August last year. And in Libya, use of the social-networking site is about half that figure.

As a qualification, it is important to note that a few Facebook users sending and receiving information and images can turn into dozens of people through association when word-of-mouth is factored in, but clearly the Internet and its associated media tools are not yet creating the blanket awakening across Africa and the Middle East that we are sometimes led to believe.

However, these diverse new forms of media do have the scope to increase the possibility for participation where the likes of television and radio have largely failed in the past. The humble VHS recorder, now considered something of a relic beside the likes of Tivo and YouTube, was once considered an example of a media device that afforded the audience the possibility to create choice and get involved in determining personal media consumption. The act of picking and choosing what to record, the fast-forward button and the possibility to skip advertisements was not long ago the pinnacle of activity where the user was concerned.

New, mostly Internet-based media mean those days are long gone. And the passive dystopian future we once imagined as a result of these new forms of media—and by design ourselves—has turned out to be a much more complex, active present.

Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown us that new media can be humanising and act as an agent bringing people together and offering choice even if it can also sometimes lock us in our rooms alone. What the likes of McLuhan failed to realise is that humans, as agents of choice, will always be the ultimate masters of the medium. Even if the medium does also have the power to fundamentally change our world, this can increasingly be on our own terms. The message has always been the medium of communication, new media simply allow us to get this message out further, wider and faster.

 

Steve Finch

Steve Finch is a long-time journalist in Asia covering Cambodia and Burma for news media including The Washington Post, TIME.com, The Bangkok Post and The Phnom Penh Post. He is a graduate in MA Anthropology of Media at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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