Two Middle Eastern governments have already been toppled, at least two more are in danger of falling, and while the tens of thousands gathered in Wisconsin have decidedly less radical ambitions, they too are showing the power that technology can bring to mass movements. It is tempting, perhaps even reassuring, to view this global moment as unusually unstable—as indeed it is—and nothing else. But what if something more is at work? What if the effects of social networking on public protest have reached a point of no return? What if this is the new normal?
After all, the gap between the grievances voiced by Wisconsin protestors and those living under autocracies is enormous. There’s no reason to think that, once their regimes have been toppled, the Egyptians and Tunisians will pack up and go home. They’ll have demands, and they’ll return to the tried-and-true techniques that brought them victory in the past. And their utilization of Twitter and Facebook are less likely to be encumbered by the new regimes. In Egypt, the protestors have already shown a willingness to continue, and they’ve gotten results. The same may be true for any additional successful protest movements.
This isn’t to say that the intensity and pace of the protests will continue. It is to suggest, however, that we should begin thinking through what this new normal might mean. Two thoughts come to mind. The first is that the technology of social networks has been very kind to democratic action. Rather than separating people by the millions, turning us all into disconnected Yous and Mes, Twitter and Facebook have provided a new and important sense of We. This is a good thing, and certainly cuts against the technological pessimism sometimes found brewing in more liberal quarters. On the other hand, one wonders what kind of government is possible when mass protests can rapidly mobilize in response to almost any decision. Will democracies be able to make the hard decisions—I am primarily thinking about the protection of minority rights—when majorities can gather so quickly?
Potentially. But there’s no guarantee. The many-million dollar question is how to prevent the gloomiest scenario from becoming reality. Over the coming months and years, I’ll be watching the constitutional development process in the new Middle Eastern countries. I’ll hope that protection of minority rights is treated as a principle of first priority—beyond negotiation, enshrined in the fundamental document of the states. Of course, no new constitutions will soon be drawn up in Madison, or any other American state. We Americans, however, will share a task with those new democrats overseas. Together, we will need to begin cultivating a public ethic for the Internet age. Such an ethic will not only have to reflect the power of the technologically empowered We, but, at the same time, respect the many different kinds of Mes. Not an easy task, to be sure. But democracy’s endurance, and even its augmentation, may very well depend on it.