The feeling of being a part of something bigger and greater than yourself is something that many chase for the whole of their lives. Being a part of the generation that will determine the fate of the Internet’s usefulness is thrilling in its own right, and the opportunity to fan the flames of revolution from the comfort of home is immensely enticing. Yet I find myself more concerned, than excited.
Much of what happens on the internet is essentially narcissistic.
For one of my psychology classes, I did a report on altruism, and in my research I came across a study that suggested that contributions to the Internet are fundamentally about attention, not altruism. Certainly, less nefarious motives can certainly be found in every aspect of the web. I am not about to suggest that retwittering feeds from Iran is wholly selfish, but more that the drive to support freedom of speech and democracy would not be enough to set the revolution in motion were it not for some modicum of desire for recognition.
There’s an instinctive desire to be the first, when it comes to participation and discovery.
Who wouldn’t want to tell their children they were among the fleet of internet denizens that helped to topple the Iranian government? This isn’t so much about attention, but about being “ahead of the curve”. There’s a sense of pride that accompanies seeing a video, an image, a fad, or a meme before it went viral. Being first initiates a sense of ownership and responsibility for whatever ensues in the aftermath. It’s why so many comments on popular articles are battles for the first post. Perhaps the very reason I am writing this, is to feel that I am the first to point these things out.
There is very little regard for source in the content of the internet.
I wrote about this a while back, but memes are crowdsourced. Although someone sent the first rickroll, and another personal created the first lolcat, it would be pompous and foolish for anyone to attempt to claim ownership over such entities. They become what they are through mass participation, not because of the genius of its author. Similarly, the number of reliable sources for information of what’s actually occurring in Iran are sparingly few. The reports from those on the ground are certainly moving, and it would be callous to turn away when something is obviously awry. Yet the headlines on Digg, Reddit, and BoingBoing are more than just a little emotionally manipulative. Only the most intense and outrageous tidbits are passed along, because that is how content on the Internet spreads. As my long-time hero Ze Frank points out, only one Western poll has been conducted concerning the election’s actual results, and they did not point to a victory for Mousavi.
Obviously, there is more than just an election that’s being disputed here. It’s about transparency and peace and cooperation, about making a government that’s for and by the people. It would, however, be irresponsible to fail to recognize the other elements that are at play here. It is not as if the Internet suddenly rose up to altruistically defend the rights of the Iranian people. It happened for a reason, and those reasons may not be particularly pleasant.
The internet has a very short term memory.
Perhaps it is insensitive to label the Iranian election as a fad, but it fits the criteria. In several months, the avatars on Twitter will go back to their normal colors. #iranelection will cease to top the trending topics. The conflict in Iran may go on or it will be resolved; but with time, the collective interest in Iran will return to where it once was. Maybe it will become an artifact of internet history, receiving reference whenever a new issue is championed by the internet. Only time will tell.