Couch rebels

Is today’s information technology a revolutionary force or the opiate of the people?  The verdict is mixed in the Middle East uprisings:

Two years ago, Iranian activists used social media sites as engines to organize massive anti-government demonstrations. But now, activists say, the limitless freedoms available online are proving to be a distraction from real-world dissent.

Instead of marching in the streets, the same doctors, artists and students who led the demonstrations in 2009 are playing Internet games such as FarmVille, peeking at remarkably candid photographs posted online by friends and confining their political debates to social media sites such as Facebook, where dissent has proved less risky.

Online, Iranians now brazenly show the parts of their lives that they used to keep secret from the state and others. Pictures of illegal underground parties, platinum blond girls without headscarves and couples frolicking on the holiday beaches of Turkey, are all over Iranian social media.

In 2009, Iranians used social media to coordinate protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested election victory. Now, some activists say online tools are becoming a distraction from real-world dissent.

“We have become couch rebels, avoiding the dangers that real changes bring,” said a 39-old Iranian artist who spends most days juggling between two laptops and 1,300 online friends. “Our world online is like an endless party with no rules, and that keeps us very busy.”

The artist insisted that she be identified only by her first name, Jinoos, to avoid government retaliation. She said she had attended a demonstration in February but, on returning home, found that all of her friends had remained online, posting news about the protest from the safety of their homes.

via In Iran, ‘couch rebels’ prefer Facebook – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    It’ll be curious to see how this plays out. The implication here is that a society is far more affected by people gathering in masses out in the streets than it is by behavior on social networking sites.

    At first glance, that seems axiomatic. You know, these kids today, sitting on their duffs, doing stupid stuff online — what effect could that have? Why, back in my day, we gathered out in the streets and we changed the nation!

    But if online social media continues to grow in importance in Iran, why wouldn’t we expect what’s done there to have more of an impact? After all, doesn’t the article depict a social revolution taking place online?

    Pictures of illegal underground parties, platinum blond girls without headscarves and couples frolicking on the holiday beaches of Turkey, are all over Iranian social media.

    That is to say, things are happening online that would never happen in public. That, itself, signals a shift. In a way, these people are exercising more freedom — and telling others about it — in a way that never used to occur, or at least in such a public manner. If these things were occuring on the street, wouldn’t we say that a revolution was taking place — at least a social one (a la the infamous 60s here in the West)?

    As such, I’m not so quick to dismiss what’s happening online over there. The question is how the online activity will affect the “real world”. Will Iranian youth, accustomed to and emboldened by such brazen displays online, begin to exhibit such behavior in public? Will the government attempt to crack down on the social networking sites in order to prevent this from happening? If they do, will the youth finally find a reason to engage in “real-world” protests, their one outlet for expression now shut off?

    I know it sounds a bit goofy to suggest that a government crack-down on Facebook would spur protests while the foregoing oppression wouldn’t, but it seems to me that the fact that people can live Western-style lives and tell others about it is evidence that the oppression hasn’t yet affected them. They have just enough freedom.

    So will this come to a head, or will the Iranian government try to strike a Chinese-style balance, where people can have just enough freedom to keep social order, but no more? In fact, that may be what they have right now.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    It’ll be curious to see how this plays out. The implication here is that a society is far more affected by people gathering in masses out in the streets than it is by behavior on social networking sites.

    At first glance, that seems axiomatic. You know, these kids today, sitting on their duffs, doing stupid stuff online — what effect could that have? Why, back in my day, we gathered out in the streets and we changed the nation!

    But if online social media continues to grow in importance in Iran, why wouldn’t we expect what’s done there to have more of an impact? After all, doesn’t the article depict a social revolution taking place online?

    Pictures of illegal underground parties, platinum blond girls without headscarves and couples frolicking on the holiday beaches of Turkey, are all over Iranian social media.

    That is to say, things are happening online that would never happen in public. That, itself, signals a shift. In a way, these people are exercising more freedom — and telling others about it — in a way that never used to occur, or at least in such a public manner. If these things were occuring on the street, wouldn’t we say that a revolution was taking place — at least a social one (a la the infamous 60s here in the West)?

    As such, I’m not so quick to dismiss what’s happening online over there. The question is how the online activity will affect the “real world”. Will Iranian youth, accustomed to and emboldened by such brazen displays online, begin to exhibit such behavior in public? Will the government attempt to crack down on the social networking sites in order to prevent this from happening? If they do, will the youth finally find a reason to engage in “real-world” protests, their one outlet for expression now shut off?

    I know it sounds a bit goofy to suggest that a government crack-down on Facebook would spur protests while the foregoing oppression wouldn’t, but it seems to me that the fact that people can live Western-style lives and tell others about it is evidence that the oppression hasn’t yet affected them. They have just enough freedom.

    So will this come to a head, or will the Iranian government try to strike a Chinese-style balance, where people can have just enough freedom to keep social order, but no more? In fact, that may be what they have right now.

  • Joe

    tODD – I think the experience in the virtual public will normalize behaviors and speech that would not ever be tolerated in the physical public square. Overtime the population will break down the wall that separates virtual and physical. Think of the virtual public square as an incubator for changing minds.

  • Joe

    tODD – I think the experience in the virtual public will normalize behaviors and speech that would not ever be tolerated in the physical public square. Overtime the population will break down the wall that separates virtual and physical. Think of the virtual public square as an incubator for changing minds.


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