Rob Long on how new social media is giving voice to Tea Party "codgers" and youth in the Middle East.
The Google and the Tweeter give voice to young and old
The older you are, the more you mix up the names of new media companies. You know you're getting creaky, for instance, when you refer to the world's most popular online search engine as "the Google," or the fastest-growing micro-blogging service as "Tweeter," which is what my father insists on calling it.
"It's Twitter, dad," I'll explain. "And what you do on Twitter is send out Tweets. Do you get it now?" And he'll shrug, accompanied by an incredulous look in my direction, as if to ask: "Do you hear yourself? Are you aware of how ridiculous you sound? A grown man saying things like tweet and twitter?"He's right, of course.
Most of the names of these new media sites are interchangeably silly - Twitter, Zynga, Quora, Tumblr, etc - and even the word that started it all, the least attractive and widely-used "blog", are awfully hard to keep straight. Who can blame the old codgers for getting them all mixed up?
On the other hand, it's the old codgers who make up a huge part of many of these services. The average age of a Facebook user, according to a recent survey, is 38, which isn't old, exactly, but certainly isn't moving as quickly as it used to. And as for The Tweeter, well, most surveys pinpoint 39 as the median age, despite the fact that no 39-year-old person should be going around using words like "twitter" and "tweet," at least according to my father.
This was all pretty obvious, at least in the United States, to anyone who was paying attention to last summer's many Tea Party rallies, which erupted more or less spontaneously across the country. Thousands of angry citizens - most of whom were firmly in the cranky-old-coot demographic - gathered in agitated demonstrations to rail against runaway government spending. They marched around in summer shorts and colourful T-shirts, carrying anti-government placards, and you knew they were having an effect when the big establishment media types on both coasts - not to mention the rattled politicians in the then-ruling Democratic party - started to get nervous.
But the Tea Party isn't a political party in the traditional sense. It's not organised by anyone. It doesn't have a leader or a headquarters. What it has - and what its members connect to each other with - is a Facebook presence and a Twitter hashtag. Want to know where the nearest Tea Party rally is this weekend? Check Twitter. Want to organise a Tea Party rally yourself? Post it on Facebook. Or, as the elderly, oddly tech-savvy Tea Partiers probably put it: check the Tweeter and post it on FaceSpace.
The Tea Party isn't a party - it's a network. You don't need permission to join. And its lack of the very things most establishment groups have - a proper mailing list, a head office, an identifiable leader - is exactly what makes the rest of the political and media establishment so nervous, and ultimately so hostile to it.
Halfway across the world from the marching columns of suburban American retirees, it's young people in the streets of Cairo, Tehran, Saan'a, and Benghazi furiously posting on Facebook and following each other on Twitter who are making a more serious kind of trouble. But it's essentially the same kind of utterly modern movement.
Two longstanding governments have been toppled in the past two months, but in each case - and in the cases of the countries experiencing similar unrest this week - it wasn't because of a charismatic opposition leader stirring up followers. Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali weren't deposed by a person. They were deposed by a network.
The faces from Tahrir Square are a lot smoother than the wrinkled faces of last summer's Tea Party rallies, and while protestors are facing riot police, tear gas, and worse, the Tea Partiers, for the most part, were only at risk of a little sunburn. But it's hard not to notice that the decentralisation of information and the distributed network of communications brought to us by Facebook and Twitter means that organising nightly demonstrations in Cairo, Tunis, and Benghazi are as easy and as efficient as organising a Tea Party rally in Kansas City.
The heavy, clunking machinery of revolutions past - printing presses, envelopes, handbills, posters, cell meetings, megaphone rallies - have been swept away, replaced by a smart phone and a Twitter hashtag.
Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood