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There's been some debate recently about the importance of social media tools in recent political events, such as the recent unrest in Egypt or last year's Iranian election. Viewed through the lens of today's social media technologies, the Egyptian experience was all about Twitter and Facebook (not to mention the distribution platforms of Internet search, blogs, et al). They, like us genereally, have been touched, inspired, and motivated to act in heretofore unknown, unique ways, just as technology has enabled the world to both witness and participate as never before in these spontaneous acts of popular will. Iran's recent election crisis, colloquially called the Twitter Revolution because we learned about it in real time and got the chance to turn our Facebook profile pics green, was but a hint of what's to come. It's all new.

No it isn't. I want to come down firmly in the middle of debate, though. Social tools aren't unimportant, they're just not most important.

Human beings have been in the revolution business pretty much since time began. The evolution of Western religious institutions has been punctuated, not just gradual, as evidenced by the Protestant Reformation, the earlier spark of nascent Christendom, or Moses' original appearance at the foot of Mount Sinai with the tablets that outlined rules for a new community of worship. Technology innovation has been characterized by revolutions, both in name and in their effects (whether experienced abruptly or over time); it probably started with fire or the wheel, and certainly included steam power, penicillin, and the ready availability of Teflon.

Social Change Has Been All About Revolutions

Assassinating Julius Caesar in 44 BCE could be considered an act of revolution, just as his assumption of power had been five years prior. Chinese dynasties had been slaughtering and replacing one another for centuries before that, and governments across the globe would continue to rise and fall due to violent, sudden change. England's King James II would fall in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688—the first upheaval so labelled—to be followed by the American Revolution, French Revolution, Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution and, well, you get the idea.

Social behaviors, assisted by the tools of the day, powered them all.

Our unique social technologies fit into a rich and complex context of experience that spans a few thousand years of history. There's nothing "new" about them, per se, in that social tools have always been drivers of revolutions; the most effective of them are as useful today as they were in the 1600s. Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet didn't prompt the events in Iran or Egypt as much as help qualify them, and there's a case to be made that they lessened the efficacy of the movements (by amplifying the reality of experience into easy entertainment content). I prefer to see them as very much in keeping with the ways revolutions have occurred, perhaps accentuating some while duplicating or improving on others.

Here's a quick armchair analysis of history's top ten social tools for starting revolutions:

  • Taverns —Public spaces for meetings are core components of every revolution, and includes pubs, coffeehouses, union halls, basements, mosques, or any place that people can meet face-to-face.
  • Word-of-mouth —People talking to one another is the primary mechanism for communicating revolutionary thought. It isn't improved by making it shorter or more frequent; rather, it's often strengthened by length and substance (see point above).
  • Speed— Revolutions are more likely to happen (and be violent and impact more people) the faster they occur, so rapidity of actions is an important tool (see Egypt's efforts at slowing down the pace of events as a key anti-revolution strategy).
  • Graphic images —Graphic images, either of the wrongs a revolution will correct or a hint of its idealized accomplishments, are useful to get inspired to act. The medium of this tool doesn't matter, though color and audio reproduction help.
  • Stereotyped adversaries —Irrespective of medium, a revolution needs enemies that are personified and easily hated. This includes reducing abstractions (like hunger, or lack of freedoms) into characters, either real or imagined.
  • Hunger —Food availability or pricing has been the underlying cause for most every revolution, and certainly a key tool for recruitment and payoff to supporters.
  • Confusion—A revolution is usually a compilation of revolutions, with different people and groups rebelling for different reasons; sometimes these various goals are coordinated, yet other times revolutions are fought for a number of disparate reasons.
  • Ease of protest— No revolution happens unless the protests can happen with little travel or coordinating (though effective protests can often be choreographed with fine precision). If a revolution happened at a distant venue, nobody would show up.
  • Songs—When people aggregate in geophysical reality, they almost instinctively chant and often sing. Music is an effective carrier of information (content and emotional), and it can be shared and experienced remotely, too.
  • Confidence —By far the most important social tool for revolution is the belief, usually mistaken, that this time it'll be different. No tactic or technology can take its place; revolutions are willed into existence, not constructed or executed.

Seeing Social Technology Through A Different Lens

If you start with the premise that core behaviors have driven revolutions across the ages, then it's an interesting thought experiment to apply our latest technologies against those tools and see how they intersect. Social media definitely extend many of them, though they also make some — like length of communication and immediacy of experiential need (i.e. hunger)—somewhat more difficult, or obviate them altogether.

That the unrest in Egypt would have occurred without Twitter or Facebook is without question, however, and arguments for or against that POV that come from monolithic perspectives are sort of pointless. Social technologies influenced events, for certain, just as they always have. But the primary tools for revolution aren't limited to technology; they encompass context, circumstance, time, biology, and a host of other qualities that make our lives meaningful.

Attaching our social media tools to these qualities, and not the other way around, would be an interesting way to better understand their perils and promise.