While it’s clear that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have revealed the Internet to be a vital tool for organizing and communicating — and, when its openness is protected, a central force for modern democracy in general — the role the Web has played on our end (the spectators) is more ambiguous.
After all, what import could an MTV-aping clip of the revolution, soundtracked by a Kinks remix possibly have?
Maybe more than we might think. Now, it seems that there may be three primary impacts of a revolution that’s being televised, so to speak, online — piped into homes, onto laptops and smart phones around the world, even when Al Jazeera is nowhere to be found.
The importance of that first impact cannot be overstated: It keeps the pressure on the oppressive regimes to restrain their tactics. Mubarak knows full well that the streets are swelling with thousands of young, internet-savvy protesters, many of whom are equipped with smart phones and other gadgets capable of taking hand held video at the drop of a hat.
The 13 people that are estimated to have been killed in the protests thus far is certainly tragic, but considering the size and length of the revolution thus far, it’s actually pretty miraculous. And it may have something to do with the regime’s sensing that conduits to the global media could be on any street corner — the last thing Mubarak wanted was a Neda event. There’s no escaping the sense that the world is watching, in ways that it hasn’t been able to ever before.
Second, the Internet has allowed other nations in the region front-row seats to the revolution — not only could the spirit of the moment flow across borders to Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere, as some are predicting, but the Web has provided potential revolutionaries with a blueprint, or at least an almanac of information on protest.
Finally, there’s us back home, watching YouTube clips of revolution footage and scanning headlines on various news sites. This might seem less relevant, less of a boon for democracy, but it’s nonetheless brimming with a unique value. The Huffington Post, for instance, has been obsessed with the revolution for over a week, and its front page has typically looked something like this:
And rightfully so — there’s a huge audience people who are understandably obsessed with the goings on in Cairo and Tunis. I’m one of them. I follow Egyptians’ Twitter feeds I’ve never met or heard of before; I watch those YouTube videos. But why? Sheer curiosity, pure voyeurism? I’d like to flatter myself that it’s more than that — and I think it is.
I think it’s a desire to acquaint ourselves with principles that have become grossly foreign to Americans — that working democracy and fair treatment are worth mobilizing for, worth the prospect of bodily risk. The closest anyone would say we’ve gotten to such a show in the states would be the Tea Party movement — and that was initially funded and organized by billionaires (most ‘grassroots’ movements are these days, on the right or the left) — or the gay rights movement, which our own media often fails to lend coverage to.
Which is why it seems that America is glued to their PCs and TVs, watching the protests in Cairo, and all of the wonderful stories coming from it that underpin the democratic spirit: A volunteer coalition forming to pick up trash and direct traffic, Christian protesters vowing to protect their Muslim peers while they pray, revolutionaries safeguarding museums and national heritage sites, and so on. Yes, there’s violence, and action, and that’s part of the intrigue. But we want to understand how all of this might apply to us; and that means synthesizing those events with our own popular culture.
That’s why somebody matched protest footage to a remixed kink song and stamped an MTV-esque icon on it — we get that, while we can’t really empathize with charging a line of tanks, or facing down a line of approaching armed policemen. But we can imagine what doing that stuff would look like in a music video, or sound like in a pop song. That’s why perhaps the most popular YouTube video of the revolution is this one, a nicely edited montage of protest footage backed by an inoffensive power ballad:
While it might be easier to scoff at this trend — our need to dumb down this stunning footage, repackage it, reformat it, in order to maximize the emotional impact — that’s not the proper recourse. We should certainly be wary of whittling the significance of revolution down into a hummable pop song, but the fact remains that these events have been unleashed upon our national stage in such a way that they demand to be digested en masse. For that we should be grateful — if it means a broad audience out there is enthralled and engaged. It means we’re being forced to find ways to re-acquaint ourselves with what democracy — and the tumultuous drive towards it — looks like in its rawest state. And thanks to the Egyptians, Tunisians, and the reach of the Internet, perhaps we’ll better understand it.
For a fairly comprehensive list of the best places to watch the revolution, see Motherboard’s roundup.