Durkheim, Dunbar, and the Sacredness of Twitter
Now that the Egyptian succession crisis has resolved in about the best way it possibly could — namely, the establishment of a military junta — I feel a little bit more free to comment on it. I don't expect it to be particularly transformative to Egypt, and I doubt that it will mark a sea change in the Middle East, broadly, so the geopolitical ramifications are not terribly interesting.

Nor, actually, are the domestic ones. The administration's wavering, not wholly coherent response is approximately what I would've expected — it's not conspicuously noble, conspicuously progressive, or conspicuously misplaced. Business as usual, which isn't a terribly bad thing considering how much poorly it could've been handled.

What I find more interesting is the reaction in the west not of politicians — who are, after all, expected to posture — but of people who felt drawn to comment in passing on the events, or to develop their opinions of it from abroad: in many ways, for us, it was a "retweet revolution."

Because the western media initially ignored the developing crisis in Egypt, the response was broadly grass roots. It relied heavily on social media in its development — particularly Twitter, which saw its own spikes of hash-tagged self-organisation. This, I think, points to an issue with social media as an emergent news form.

In a talk called "Integrating Everything," Nature's lead product manager Ian Mulvany described five steps in decision-making: gathering the data, trusting the data, disambiguating the data, understanding and analysing the data, and then "closing triangles" — that is, connecting ideas with people and resources.

These days, we have been given cause not to trust "big media" and corporate journalism. By relying on our social graph, and therefore presenting us with information from those sources that we implicitly trust, news-via-networking thereby reduces the traditional process: the data is gathered for us, and its curation by those close to us works to solve the problems both of trust and disambiguation.

Where information propagates virally, however, two issues develop. Firstly, information is spreading too rapidly and too broadly to be easily curated, such that news-via-network no longer replaces the process steps of "trust" and "disambiguation": it removes them entirely. Secondly, because the decision itself is low-cost ("rebroadcast the information I have just received") fully investing in the analytical step requires too much time: we'd be left behind. When news develops on a minute-by-minute basis, taking an hour to fact-check puts you out of the loop.

The social network itself therefore displays the emergent behaviour of creating reality-by-consensus. This is classic Colbertian "truthiness": information is accepted not because it is factually accurate, but because it has run the emotional gauntlet of its viral gatekeepers. What are the implications of this? We can look, I think, to the Egyptian crisis for that as well.

I described the transition of power in Egypt to a military junta as the best possible outcome for a deliberate reason. Democracy in Egypt is liable to be destabilising and is certainly not a net positive for the citizens in any measurable fashion. It's a country in which 82% of the population thinks that people should be stoned to death for committing adultery, and 84% believe the law should invoke the death penalty for those who leave the Islamic faith.

These are not small numbers — like the slim majorities of Egyptians who believe that suicide bombing can be justified or who favour gender segregation in the workplace. These are overwhelming majorities, and the cold, hard reality is that supporting "democracy" in Egypt entails understanding that it is manifestly, profoundly different from western democracy, and that people will suffer under it.

The alternative is a craven rationalisation based on a hypothetical intersection of western democracy with western human rights, particularly where religious freedom and women's rights are concerned. Pragmatically, this is not an intellectually legitimate position; it's the political science equivalent of believing that copper can be transformed into gold if you just wish hard enough.

Nor is this something that is liable to improve with succeeding generations — at least, not this succession, not of this generation. Disenfranchised and impoverished, these youth are part of a class struggle against entrenched, secular power systems — it only makes sense that the response would be further radicalisation. Pragmatically, the current options are: democracy, stability, human rights — pick any two.

This has been swept under the rug. Our social graph has curated away the image of this "youthquake" stoning women to death, as it has curated away the anti-Semitic tenor to much of the discourse and the probable regional repercussions of desecularising Egypt. Instead we have been presented an image of oppressed, noble youth rising up to cast off the shackles of their oppressors: Egypt has become hyperreal, a constructed phenomenon as opposed to a real event.

Presuming the junta holds, the retweeters expressing their solidarity with the protest movement will not be forced to confront the logical consequences of their desires — which is fortunate, but also somewhat irrelevant: by the time the chickens come home to roost, they will have moved on to the next crusade anyway. In a viral economy trading on emotion, it is more important to be rebelling than, strictly speaking, to know what one is rebelling against.

It's tempting to connect westerners who express their support for this revolution because it is trendy (or at least, a "trending topic") with those who, in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, were devoted advocates of socialism and, later, staunch apologists for Stalinism. This was an ideological trend, and people bought in without really understanding what it was they were supporting or considering the practical realities of the situation — an unfortunate tendency attacked by George Orwell, who felt duped by it. There are some clear and immediate similarities.

I think, however, that this is unfair. American socialists of the time were not operating in a vacuum: they were fighting for something, and the parallel of the conflicts in Russia and those in the United States were clear and imminent. Western youth and Egyptian youth, however, are not part of the same struggle — beyond a sense of discontent, there is no link between the kleptocracy and repression of the Egyptian regime in the same way that there is no link between the radicalist sea change of the region's youth and the disaffected neo-Xer trends of our generation.

This is not to say that these changes, and their echoes over here, do not fill an important role. They do — they're addictive, powerful, and compelling, and they help bring us together. Writing his theory of religion in 1912, the anthropologist Emile Durkheim argued that our lives, broadly speaking, could be divided into the sacred and the profane. For Durkheim, the profane was the routine: our daily, quotidian activities that accrue no net result and produce no real change. They are merely the things we do to keep going; they do nothing to help forge real connections or to build societies. In comparison, the sacred represents those ordering phenomenon that bind us together as a collective whole.

Today, in the west, we have slaughtered most sacred institutions. Broadly speaking they no longer order us, whether we're talking about the church, the government, unifying institutions like the news media or even our communal gathering spaces — even Oldenburg's "third place" has fallen out of fashion as we lose touch with our traditional haunts. We're decorporealising, moving from well-bounded physicalities with defining sociopolitical traits into fractious, conflicting, and occasionally irreconcilable social groups bound ephemerally by common interest but not common belief.

Into this instability enter the social network. In its easy connections and ritualised behaviour — think of the "like" button, the "trackback"; the "retweet" — modern digital social networks are taking over as means of generating society's rules and giving it a framework. The viral spread of a meme, a social object, or a story brings us together. It gives us a shared perspective and, by allowing us to continue propagating its token, it gives us a sense of participation and investment.

The modern anthropologist Grant McCracken has argued that the friend feeds we follow on Twitter, Facebook, and their ilk represent a digital form of phatic communication — the small talk that reassures us that we are not alone and keeps connections within our social network alive. In the same way, I would argue that networks permitting rapid viral propagation transcend the immediate nodes in our social graph to say something about the broader community. Twitter, in other words, is sacred.

Sacred rituals and gatherings, for Durkheim, fostered a particular kind of emergent behaviour. This he referred to as collective effervescence: the energy of a crowd that is unifying, powerful, and extends beyond the sum of its parts. The hashtags and retweets that western youth adopted as a sympathetic response to the events unfolding in Egypt were exactly this sort of effervescence: empowering, they were connecting rather than disenfranchising, driven by the quick, easy flux of emotion rather than the ponderous weight of rational thought.

This explains also why it is wrong for Kenneth Cole to exploit the revolution to sell sunglasses, but appropriate for individuals to exploit it to build community. It's not that there is anything explicitly crass about sunglasses — or at least, not any more crass than the notion that one can piously express support for a revolution they do not understand or effect change in a far-off country simply by clicking "retweet to my followers." Both are troubling in the same way, and, objectively, equally illegitimate. But sunglasses are profane, and by its intrusion Kenneth Cole has transgressed over a boundary we're very uncomfortable crossing.

The response should, therefore, not be sanctimonious excoriation, which gets us nowhere. Nor is it, broadly speaking, my intent to criticise the Twitterers who jumped headfirst into participation where they had no right to participate. There is nothing intrinsically "good" about the Egyptian protests — or, for that matter, protesters — and nothing intrinsically "bad" about taking advantage of it to one's own ends. It suggests, merely, that in our human way we have found a way of using the next generation of connectivity to recapitulate age-old methods of the same. There's nothing unique or particularly transformative about this Twitter phenomenon — it should be understood in traditional context.

This is the real lesson of social networks and social networking. Our circles have gotten bigger — geographically, temporally, ethnically. But at heart, we're still people, and we behave in very human ways. Facebook won't destroy society any more than it will save it; Twitter is no more a disruptive force set to end society as we know it than the telegram was. We're as close as we ever have been, and any time anybody throws a wrench in the works here we are, as a society, building back the same old ties in the same old ways. They're grander and more expansive but, like a fractal, even as they become more complex they retain the same basic pattern. Or, in less than a hundred and forty characters, we might say this:

#themorethingschange ...
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