Ai Weiwei remarked in August of 2012 for Foreign Policy’s “Cities Issue” that “Twitter is my city, my favorite city.” He continued: “I can talk to anybody I want to. And anybody who wants to talk to me will get my response. They know me better than their relatives or my relatives. There’s so much imagination there; a lot of times it’s just like poetry. You just read one sentence, and you sense this kind of breeze or a kind of look. It’s amazing.”
The Limitations of the Comparison
Cities are areas where people coalesce in proximity to one another to share ideas, make and sell goods and services to each other, to commune. Cities radiate energy, possibility, and power.
In some ways, Twitter (or the internet more broadly) recreates the information sharing that can happen in cities, and in fact can be substantially more efficient about the spreading of news than any kind of rumors floating in the air of a city. Facts can be checked and verified or debunked instantaneously.
The community online is tied together by interest rather than simply by geographic proximity. The China specialists around the world that I communicate with over email list-servs, blogs, or Twitter share more of my interests than the people slinging dough at Pizza House across the street.
That being said, politically, I’m unsure of the power of Twitter or the internet in 2012 to overthrow dictators. Shame can move electorates and democratically elected officials often respond to shame by abdicating (Spitzer, etc), but the conversation eventually turns and leaders that do not leave tend to endure after their crises blow over. (n.b. In the United States, these crises are almost exclusively sexual in nature, presumably due to the mix of interest in the public and the media in reporting. Financial scandals disappear much quicker if they are reported on at all.)
Dictators, though, have no shame. We live in a world where democracy is thought of as a norm. Dictators do not allow their own populations the right to participate in the selection of their leaders. What could shame such a person? Pushing leaders out of office requires more than shame. It requires individuals motivated enough to risk condemnation, violence, imprisonment, torture, and death to jointly rage against the government, against the dictator. The internet can foment that rage, can aid in organizing and directing it to the maximum of its capacity, can share it with the world. As such, the internet is powerful and can undermine dictators, but the real power to end tyranny still lives in the space of streets and sidewalks, of guns and tanks, of people. People marching, occupying, protesting together, and risking everything have to be able to change the minds of well-equipped military officers and grunts to not open fire. That’s the moment when a real city takes back power from the dictator.