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Science

Twitter, tear gas and life in digital streets

We like to think our online and offline lives are separate things. But we're way past that. Our digital lives are now totally intertwined. "Twitter and Tear Gas" author Zeynep Tufekci tells DW why.

DW: One of the most striking ideas you write about in "Twitter and Tear Gas" - for me, anyway - is this idea that we've got to stop seeing our online and offline lives as being two distinct things or experiences. Your on the ground investigation of protests in Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere, and of the use of social media to organize people, makes that clear. But we do still like to think of online and offline as being separate in our daily, non-protest lives, don't we?

Zeynep Tufekci: We do. They are definitely different. I can talk to you on the phone. You're not in front of me, but that doesn't make you unreal, it just makes this a technology that can "gap space." The thing with the internet is that it's a much richer experience. It doesn't just gap space, it can create its own kind of spaces. You can have forums and platforms, and there's a tendency to interpret it as a place of its own, like the movie "The Matrix," where you can have this alternative universe you go into. A lot of the time I hear people say, 'You're just doing this online, take to the streets.' And as a movement person and a scholar, I think, well, the streets don't have any magic to them either, what is it about streets that works?

I wanted to have a deeper understanding of how movements convey power or threat. Often it's not online versus offline, it is a kind of capacity that they build. If you can use online tools to raise a billion dollars, that's a lot of power there. Or if you use online tools to change people's minds, which has happened and is very important. But there are things that online tools are better for and things that face-to-face meetings or conversations are better for. I'm not saying they are equal. I'm just saying that neither of them is unreal. They are both real.

So we need to see online and offline as being connected, a mix, or intertwined?

Correct. And they've reconfigured the world. Just like telephony or TV, they are a part of our world. And none of it is unreal. That's why I hate the word "virtual," because that implies there's an unreality. Or cyberspace. It's not a space. It's all intertwined.

A lot has been written about social media and politics and protest, and one thing that often crops up is this Jürgen Habermas idea of the "public sphere," offline. We do yearn for that, and even from the way you describe the protest at Gezi Park in Turkey, people's behavior seems to have been very analog there.

Zeynep Tufekci - Autorin von Twitter and the Tear Gas (Privat)

Tufekci: One of the first things people do when they get tear gassed and start breathing again is pull out their phone and tweet

But that's true of any public space. A coffee shop is a public space and it doesn't matter if you decide to meet there by phone or email, or you decide it in person. The thing about digital connectivity, which I think confuses people, is that it's many things at once. It can be a one-to-one mechanism, like a telephone. It can be a public space if you're meeting in a Facebook group; it can be many things. So what I try to do is look at these things separately and say, we have this multifaceted thing, what are some of the ways we interact with it?

For example, in protests, when people get tear gassed, one of the things they do is go to the back of the park or wherever they are, and usually one of the first things they do when they start breathing again is pull out their phone and tweet or talk about it. It's a way of telling your friends you're okay, it's a way of telling people you're outraged. And there are many "publics" in this space. One might be your friends. If you can broadcast and you go viral, that's another public. Or it might just be one-to-one if you send a text message.

It seems, though, there are some people who are deeply invested in their online worlds, people who are on Reddit or, as you describe it in the book, on YouBeMom, and they're doing things they wouldn't do offline. So they must see online and offline as separate.

There's a thing called the "stranger on a train" effect. A lot of people will "fess-up" to a person they sit next to on a bus or a train on a long ride. It's the kind of thing you do partly because that person doesn't have social sanction over you. It's a known effect.

But I'm not sitting on a train or bus and asking a stranger for illicit photos …

If you're on Reddit, you're not terribly public either if you're anonymous - you're shielded by one of its affordances. And in terms of asking for illicit photos, that's what people do whenever they get a chance, historically speaking, so that's not unusual behavior. When you see new technologies develop, one of the first things they get used for is that kind of interaction. It's just that with digital technology it's so much more widespread, it's in front of us and we can see it more vividly.

There's been a lot of writing on social media, digital technology, and protest, starting perhaps with Evgeny Morozov's "The Net Delusion" around the time of the Arab Spring. Are we better placed now to evaluate social media and protest?

I think so. The hype and put-down stages are hopefully over. This is complicated and we have to grapple with it in all its complexities, rather than just "is it good or bad?"

Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with an affiliate appointment in the Department of Sociology. Her book "Twitter and Tear Gas" is published by Yale University Press (2017).

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