The title of this website refers to Habermas’s Theory of Pragmatic Meaning, and uses a reference to the coffee house as the place where political meaning is made regardless of class, family, or economic station. With this in mind, I’m currently writing a paper for the International Conference on Interdisciplinary Social Sciences that draws on these notions to examine why different social technologies have such varied impacts across a number of political movements. This will be a two-part post: Part 1 will lay out the argument, and Part 2 will provide a methodological discussion and conclusion.
The thesis of the paper is that pragmatic meaning to develops within a movement, with the technological sphere acting as a “coffee house”, allowing all interested parties to post comments, share ideas, and distill shared notions of truth in a crowdsourced environment that does not discriminate against family lineage, political affiliation, or economic class. A note of critique: To join this crowd it helps to be educated enough to use computers, and have the money to access them; thus, like the coffee houses of old, there still remain socio-economic issues related to access and voice.
The catch is that not all tools are created equally when it comes to developing Pragmatic Meaning. Is the development of Pragmatic Meaning better supported by Facebook, which featured prominently in the build up to the January 25 Youth Movement in Egypt, or Twitter which was associated closely with the failed Iranian uprising in 2009 ?
First, a little about what we mean by “Pragmatic Meaning”. Jürgen Habermas, a social philosopher of the Frankfurt School, used the term to describe a process of meaning-making in a socio-political environment. Pragmatic Meaning basically describes a process through which a group of people participate in an open dialogue, sharing ideas and allowing the value of the ideas to be determined by the group. The ideas with the highest value define the group’s meaning and goals. In a way, it’s a corollary idea to crowdsourcing.
Essentially what we see is a process by which a group of people, through crowdsourcing, decide what ideas have merit and should be adopted, and who is fit to lead the movement or society. Did this meaning-making take place in Egypt? The story begins in El Mahalla El Kubra, Egypt, during a workers strike. The movement at that time was called the April 6 Movement, in expectation of a planned demonstration in solidarity with striking dock workers that was to take place on April 6, 2008.
The activists set up Facebook pages detailing the strikes, and the grievances against the Mubarak regime. People joined the group by the tens of thousands, and discussion started on threads. From the crowd, meaning was being made as people shared their stories. During the time between April 2008 and January 2011 the activists continued to maintain the Facebook pages and received training in non-violent civil resistance, while operating underground. Thought leaders were being identified in the Facebook forums, and by time January 2011 rolled around, revolutionary goals had been identified, tactics agreed upon, and trusted communication networks established. These networks were so robust that when the government “turned off” the internet, communication between protesters continued. This seems like a strong argument in favor of Pragmatic Meaning.
It’s also a strong argument for extended processes of meaning making and bonding. While I don’t fully agree with Malcolm Gladwell’s assessment of the “twitter revolution” in Iran, I take value in the point he makes about high context relationships versus low context relationships in high risk activities. It takes time to develop high context bonds that are crucial to the survival of a social movement (particularly when the safety of protesters is on the line). We refer to this as a long-tail process, and if we’re comparing Facebook and Twitter, we might ask whether they add value to long-tail processes. So can a revolution develop on Twitter alone? My initial answer is no, and while my conclusion may seem similar to Gladwell’s, how I get there and where I’m going is quite different. For this, we have to wait for Part 2.