Ethan Zuckerman’s “Cute Cats and the Arab Spring”

Table of Contents

Cory Doctorow (*) and Jillian York (*) were both full of praise for Ethan Zuckerman's Vancouver Human Rights Lecture on Cute Cats and the Arab Spring (*), so I listened to the podcast from CBC's Ideas (*). You can also watch the lecture on YouTube (*).

Ethan Zuckerman (EZ) has a long and admirable history of involvement in digital activism and a wide knowledge of both technology and social change; the lecture is worth an hour of your time. But (you knew there was a but) in the end I have to disagree with his main thesis.

1 Dry Tunisian Tinder

EZ tells us how, after years of sporadic and failed protests in Tunisia, one particular spark in the city of Sidi Bouzid blossomed into the forest fire of revolution. When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at official interference with his vegetable stall it was a dramatic and desperate act, but not unique: he wasn't the first person to do so even that year. What was different this time?

EZ's argument is that digital social media was different. The early protest was captured on video using a cheap phone and posted to a social networking site where… it did NOT "go viral". Instead the video was picked up by Tunisians outside the country (including EZ's friend Sami ben Gharbia1), who were scanning Tunisian web content for political news and curating it on a site called (*).

Al Jazeera got the video from and broadcast it back into Tunisia; Tunisians found out in turn what was going on from Al Jazeera. What's important here, says EZ, is that the new low-cost participatory media is an essential part of a larger media ecosystem that helped to stir up feelings within Tunisia.

2 Cute Cats and Malaysian Opposition

In the 1990s EZ ran a web site called Tripod for college/university students. Surprisingly, many people used it not for the Worthy Purposes he and his colleagues had planned, but to share simple and casual things, like pictures of cute cats. Also surprisingly, some of the heaviest use came from Malaysia. Wondering what was going on, Zuckerman got the Malay content translated, only to find that his site was hosting the Malaysian opposition Reformasi movement (*). Tripod was a space that was difficult for the Malaysian government to censor while being easy to hold discussions.2

And so we reach the "cute cat theory": the ideal places for those who suddenly have important, politically sensitive material they want to share are sites designed for sharing videos and pictures of "cute cats" (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr). These sites are easy to use, have a wide reach, and are difficult to censor – if the government shuts them down it annoys a lot of people and alerts them that something interesting is going on. "Cute cats" sites are natural tinder boxes for revolutionary sparks.

The events EZ recounts are compelling, but a lot of compelling things happen in this strange world, so my first thoughts whenever I hear a story of the Internet producing some unique chain of events is: can I think of a non-Internet example that matches? So here is the lunch-room theory of political dissent (details from here).

3 Polish lunch rooms

On July 8, 1980, in the lunch room at a transport equipment plant in the eastern Polish town of Swidnik, the price of a pork cutlet jumped from 10.20 zloty to 18.10. For Miroslaw Kaczan, this jump was the final straw, and after lunch he switched off the machines he was working on. Others in Department 320 joined him, and other departments in the factory were quick to join. Soon there was a factory-wide stoppage, and it wasn't just about pork cutlets: the demands of the protesters revealed a wealth of pent-up frustration.

News about the strike in Swidnik spread so quickly that within two weeks 50,000 people in the region were on strike. This wave of strikes was resolved on July 25, but the disruption was far from over: three weeks later the strikes at the Gdansk ship yards in northern Poland started, and within a year Solidarnosc had over 9 million members.

In the early days of the strikes, Poles had a hunger for news of the protests, of course, and despite the heavy censorship of official media they found them, through short-wave radio broadcasts from other countries.

So the lunch-room theory is not that different from the cute-cat theory, except that there's no Internet. People gather wherever they gather for their everyday conversations and interactions, and it is in these everyday places that a spark of frustration can catch fire. And once it does catch fire, a combination of broadcast media and a networked public spreads the news quickly.

Perhaps, the Polish example shows, the Internet is not essential for the spark to turn into a fire. Perhaps a digitally networked public is not the only networked public.

4 Tunisia's Second Act

Even in Tunisia, politically sensitive material for which there is a high demand has found its way through dangerous pathways to reach a public desperate for news.

In a long piece called Streetbook (*) John Pollock interviews two members of an underground Tunisian group called Takriz [update: see Ethan Zuckerman and Jillian York's comments below for reservations about Streetbook]. One of these "Taks" describes how the video that "made the second half of the [Tunisian] revolution" was taken when the regime had shut down the Internet, so "Takriz smuggled a CD of the video over the Algerian border" before forwarding it to Al Jazeera. YouTube may make it it easier and safer to make videos available (at least so long as Google lets it be done anonymously), but when an important video was available, the Internet was not essential to the process of distribution.

5 Media Ecology or Network Ecology?

If we are really going to talk about a "media ecology" in the sense EZ means, we need to include all those gathering places–online and offline–which are difficult to shut down precisely because of their everyday, general purpose role. In addition to Facebook and YouTube we need to include factory lunchrooms, mosques and churches, football stadia (*), universities, popular music (*), balconies (*), and more.

All these share a number of properties with Cute Cats sites. They are difficult to shut down without annoying large numbers of previously quiescent people, they are difficult to monitor in detail because of the dispersed and varied nature of the interactions that go on, and they are already familiar places for the gathering and sharing of information. EZ says that "we don't take these 'cute cat tools' seriously enough. These tools that anyone can use, that are used 99% of the time for completely banal purposes" but he doesn't take offline everyday institutions for banal sharing seriously enough.

EZ's mistake is the achilles heel of social media advocates. Talk of a "networked society" is justified by comparing today's digitally connected populations to a population of couch potatoes watching prime time TV, but such a comparison overlooks all those other institutions of public networking. Instead of talking of a "media ecology" we should be talking of a "network ecology": the intricate tapestry of multiple networking institutions and practices that makes up a society.

Do digital social media supplement other networking instutions or displace them? There has been a lot of work on this at the individual level, but it's much more difficult to evaluate on a societal level. It is possible that digital social media increase the richness of social networks in a society, but it's also possible (likely?) that digital social media are the kudzu of networks, thriving while they strangle the other components of a rich and diverse network ecology; the best network left standing in an impoverished environment.


1 Among other things, Sami ben Gharbia is author of a fantastic essay on The Internet Freedom Fallacy and Arab Digital Activism (*)

2 In fact it may not have been so much that the site was difficult to censor, as that Malaysian government had decided to exclude the Internet as a whole from its otherwise-strict censorship rules (*).

Date: 2012-01-05 22:50:21 EST

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  1. I like the “Cute Cats” thesis and your extension to real world institutions.
    I think it is important to consider two perspectives: 1) Inside-the-Tornado, and 2) Outside-the-Tornado. I think your main argument regarding social media and the Arab Spring takes an Inside-the-Tornado perspective, that is, social media existed inside the revolution (the tornado) but was not the main fuel. I find myself agreeing with you but I could easily be swayed with new evidence.
    The Outside-the-Tornado perspective involves everyone else watching the tornado from the outside. I think this is where social media holds its own. Al Jazeera was the main information outlet for the Arab World living outside of the Tornado but social media was more important to the Western World than was cable news.
    Social media increased the global reach of information about the revolution. My guess is that global reach/perception forms a feedback loop that impacts what happens Inside-the-Tornado.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Your point that social movements can and do take place entirely offline is certainly valid, and you’re right to observe that many thinkers seem to have forgotten that social movements have been possible in contexts where actors don’t have control over communication networks.
    When I started writing about this idea in 2007, I was trying to make the argument that digital activists could often be more effective by using widespread tools, not esoteric, protest-specific tools. My hope was to expand the ecosystem we were considering, from specific tools like circumvention and encryption software, to more broad tools like Facebook and YouTube. My goal was to have a more thorough view of the ecosystem. In the talk you reference, I tried to broaden the equation to talk about the importance of broadcast media. In other words, I’m trying not to fall into the trap of being internet-exclusive in considering a network ecology… but I acknowledge that it is a trap and am sorry you feel I fall short in this talk.
    I’d caution against taking the article on Takriz too seriously. In conversations with Sami ben Gharbia and others, they’ve expressed some skepticism about that group’s role in the movement. And there’s no evidence that the Tunisian government shut down the internet. Yes, it was heavily controlled – as it has been for years – but there was no Egypt-style shutdown. Instead, in a move to retain power, Ben Ali turned off internet filtering a few days before leaving power.
    Thanks for your reflections and critique.

  3. RAD – There seems to be ongoing debate about the relative importance of inside and outside roles for digital social media. Clay Shirky’s position is that it is the ability for people to talk to each other that is key (Facebook in Egypt and mobile phones in Philippine protests being the central cases if I remember right) while EZ emphasizes its ability to penetrate the cordon of censorship that keeps foreign media out.
    Ethan – Thanks for the reply, for the caution about Streetbook, and for the context you give for your ideas. I did get (but perhaps did not reflect) your point about how the synergy between internet tools and broadcast media was important for Tunisians.
    I think where I am more sceptical than you is whether the Internet’s role in this emerging ecology is as a supplement to other species, or whether (or under what conditions) it displaces other valuable but less visible means of sharing and collaborating.
    Individual cases tell us where the cracks in a particular dam appeared. A separate question is whether digital social media makes the dam higher or lower. I don’t think that’s answered either – and is also possibly not answerable in a general way.

  4. The one thing I would point out here (as Ethan has) is that ‘Streetbook’ was highly criticized by just about every Tunisian I know, both inside and outside the country. Furthermore, I would add–to back that up–that I was interviewed for the piece, said things contradictory to what were published, and was subsequently not mentioned. Clearly, the author had a narrative he wanted to push.
    In any case, I don’t necessarily agree with your conclusion, though I would add that in certain cases–such as Syria–those rich offline components simply don’t exist…or exist on such a small scale that it takes online networks to truly link them together and garner a larger crowd. Egypt, as is my understanding, is a very different case in which those offline networks do and have existed for a long time (and thus, in my humble opinion, the real role of online networks was to add critical mass).
    I always appreciate your thoughtfulness!

  5. Thanks for the further clarifications about Streetbook (and the final sentence).
    You are right of course, that there are cases where the “offline components” don’t exist, places like North Korea, Central America in the early ’80s, or Saddam-era Iraq where even trivial displays of disloyalty were & are vulnerable to death squads or informers. In such cases, is the Internet more resistant to censorship than the offline components? Looking forward, will the Dictator’s Dilemma thesis hold – that there is something of an all-or-nothing nature to the Internet that makes control difficult — or will Ethan’s China corollary become more of the norm?
    My suspicion is, of course, that with the centralization of the main streets of Internet traffic there are emerging points of control over digital networks that are not on the side of liberation (ISPs, phone companies, device makers, Web 2.0 software companies). Faced with these, I do think that at the very least it is wise to ensure that dissident groups don’t limit their field of activity to the digital sphere.

  6. I’m really tired of being the negative nelly, but I listened to Ethan’s talk with a mixture of admiration and concern. He makes a lot of good points, and he’s sufficiently circumspect about the link between technology and politics to avoid making Shirky-esque pronouncements, plus he’s more likeable. However it wasn’t so much his overall thesis that I had a problem with – it’s pretty commonsensical – but the way he builds the argument.
    At a number of stages in that talk, he elides different issues and different technologies, and then uses that temporary confusion to launch the next stage of the argument. The most obvious moment for this was when he’s talking about the fall of the Estrada government in the Philippines, and he says: “It’s amazing what you can do if you only have a mobile phone, if you only have Facebook”.
    Facebook launched 3-4 years after the Estrada government fell, so Facebook had nothing to do with it. Yet this elision – whether conscious or unconscious – is typical of these public presentations, and frequently of the written material as well. Zuckerman is far, far smarter than most of social media commenters, but even he’s so excited by the tech that he puts it first, rather than starting with the politics and building up, and I’m so, so tired of talking about this shit now.

  7. My brother says that the world is divided into physicists and chemists. Physicists have an eye for the general principles, broad statements, and model problems (“assume this is a sphere”). Chemists focus on the specifics of individual cases and the consequences of small differences between them (progesterone is very very similar to testosterone).
    I was trained as a chemist.

  8. And biologists who think in systems?

  9. I think Ethan Zuckerman’s a very smart and extremely thoughtful person trying to do high quality analysis. But he’s immersed in, well, an “ecosystem” which is full of venture capitalists and huckster marketers who make their living selling to big Internet corporations. So there’s immense pressures regarding taking what he’s trying to do in terms of Internet social effects, and turn it into “Cute Cats Web 2.0 services are revolutions and FREEDOM!”. He may not be saying that, but many people around him want to be saying that. And that “ecosystem” muffles the parts of what he says which don’t fit the PR story, while amplifying those parts which are supportive of it.

  10. In such cases, is the Internet more resistant to censorship than the offline components?
    Have you, by any chance, read Deborah Amos’s book, “Eclipse of the Sunnis”? I have some criticisms of it generally, but the first few chapters–in which she describes the the Iraqi exile opposition theatre community in Damascus (damn, I hope I got all of those adjectives right, it’s been a year since I read it)–reminded me of this:
    I think that part of what the Internet provides for places like Syria and Iran (as opposed to places like Egypt, as differentiated in my above comment) is what was, previously, the domain of exiles and expats. The Iranian opposition for years has been heavily bolstered, and perhaps even led, by Iranians outside of Iran. The Internet gives Iranians INSIDE the country more opportunities to connect.
    Just a thought.
    Another example I often give when discussing this is Lebanon’s LGBT community. There’s a great book of essays–Bareed Mista3jil–from queer women in Lebanon that describes the development of a community, starting with an IRC channel called #Lesbanon straight through to cautious meetups at Dunkin Donuts and later, in Beirut’s ever-increasing gay nightlife. The idea presented there is that, in the ’90s, before the nightlife scene came about, the Internet was the only real means to connect with other queer-identifying Lebanese. That example says more to me than a lot of the supposed Arab Spring examples do.

  11. I don’t want to get trapped into arguing that the Internet has Never Been Good for Anything Ever, and the #Lesbanon example is a great one. I don’t think IRC could be described as a “Cute Cat” technology. IRC is, if I remember, mediated through servers, but not through a single centralized server in the way that Web 2.0 technologies typically are. Ethan Z was arguing against putting too much emphasis on tools like Tor, and pointing to the importance of Facebook, YouTube etc. IRC (and blogging to some extent) seem in between those sets of tools.
    I find it very difficult to get beyond these individual cases. Today’s example of the YouTube video (which I saw on the Guardian) of US Marines urinating on Afghan corpses is a Cute Cat case in some ways, but I suspect YouTube was not essential to the video’s distribution. The plethora of technologies (Tor/IRC/blogs/SMS/Facebook…), the ways in which they are used means there is always another example that points in a different direction. Thanks for the pointers, and I’ll have to read the essays (and I haven’t read Amos either… so much to read so little time).

  12. For “The Internet gives Iranians INSIDE the country more opportunities to connect. … Just a thought.”
    Ah, but consider alternately:
    “The Internet gives secret police INSIDE the country more opportunities to monitor dissidents … Just a thought.”
    Which thought is the one which gets into the conference-club, because which one ultimately has money behind it?
    “… the Internet was the only real means to connect with other queer-identifying Lebanese.” – And when this is co-opted, and QueerIdentifyingLebBook is created, and advertising sold, and deals made with the government to suppress certain topics (or just naturally directed away from material that’s bad for business), does the implication stay the same? I remember the glory days of USENET, where commercialization hadn’t yet started, and how different it was. But it was a brief and not exactly representative moment in time (especially net.time). It sort of reminds me of trying to find an authentic folk artist, and make them the poster-child for the commercial music industry.

  13. Tom, coming to this a bit late, sorry. There’s just been a flurry of building on the campus where I work. One new building: no cafeteria. A second new building: a Tim Horton’s, where people can grab-and-go. Your post has got me wondering whether or not the lack of lunch rooms isn’t purely accidental…
    Or perhaps it’s just that people don’t take lunch any more, and either spend time working or at their desk connecting with friends on facebook…

  14. Catherine Fitzpatrick

    Very good work telling the Polish lunch room story and the real back story to the Tunisian “Youtube” revolution — which is that mass media of the old-fashioned kind with access — Al Jazeera — is really what made it happen.
    One could talk about the same role CNN played in the past in Eastern Europe, or the role of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
    I had my own critique of Zuckerman, not only about his reductive view of people and their cute-cat Internet habits or the disdain for organic solidarity, but the premise it’s really all about, which is advancing the agenda of a new technological elite.
    I will try to think through whether there really is a network ecology and that digitalization of some networks of weak ties isn’t intervening in those organic networks. For example, if I think of the people from my parish, isn’t it the ones on Facebook I keep up with the most?

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