By Joel Newman and Luke Zimmerman

On January 25, 2011, thousands of Egyptians filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a protest of the 30-year rule of then-President Hosni Mubarak. A Facebook page called “Day of Rage” gathered 90,000 followers and was used to coordinate actions. The flexibility and agility afforded by social media networks allowed the protests to continue for the next several days, relaying information about locations, activities, and eluding police movements. Egypt, a modern country with widespread smartphone use and internet access, had just witnessed a new type of organized protest. Then, Mubarak’s government answered with an unprecedented action of their own: They turned the internet off. Undeterred, protests continued. On February 11, Mubarak resigned. 

Dr. Philip N. Howard of the University of Washington published a study of the role of social media in the Arab Spring. He noted the rise of discussion on Twitter and Facebook throughout the earlier Tunisian revolution and leading up to the January 25 protest: “People throughout the region were drawn into an extended conversation about social uprising. The success of demands for political change in Egypt and Tunisia led individuals in other countries to pick up the conversation. It helped create discussion across the region.” Howard said that although social media did not cause the upheaval in North Africa, they altered the capacity of citizens to affect domestic politics. Online activists created a virtual ecology of civil society, debating contentious issues that could not be discussed in public.

Since the Arab Spring, much has been made of the power of smartphones and social media as tools of organization, capable of galvanizing support and building a movement; however, five years later these popularly elected governments have largely returned to repressive autocracies. Could it be that smartphones and social media, capable as they are at connecting people, make these connections in qualitatively the wrong way to build consensus for a lasting movement?

There’s a fundamental imbalance to the social networking technologies we use. Both the hardware and software are designed and engineered behind a wall—we are invited to use these tools but are not involved in their creation, and the goals they are designed for may not be our own. As Facebook and Twitter have evolved and grown ubiquitous, their mode of use has also evolved. They have become less about facilitating connection between people, and more about pushing out a content stream—cute kid pictures, political grandstanding, tasty food. They’re platforms for building your personal brand, and consequently ill-suited for listening, understanding, and rich conversation. They’re designed for users to create and consume content streams, not to be engaged citizens or to build a democratic movement. Twitter can fill Tahrir Square, but can it function as a new civic space and add depth to public discourse?

As social media tools have evolved, content has become so ubiquitous that it far exceeds any one individual’s capacity to consume even a small fraction of it. In this ocean of content, simply getting someone to pay attention to you has become the business model of social networking platforms like Twitter. Attention is a scarce commodity and it has developed into an economy of its own. A now common tactic to gain a share of our attention economy is to require less of it. 140 characters requires nothing more than a quick glance, but we’re constantly prodded for that occasional sliver. 

This has become our connected life: constantly paying slivers of attention to Twitter, cat GIFs, emails, and Instagram. None of these are full conversations in and of themselves. Each is a data point in what social scientists are calling our ambient awareness. Pings and status updates are adequate when interfacing with technology, but if you are only ambiently aware of your significant other at dinner, you may end up sleeping on the couch. 

Compounding this distracted reality is the lack of nuanced tone, expression, and body language in online communication. I recently made a Facebook joke, and the dry humor was lost in typed words. If I had been in the room my body language and tone of voice would have communicated that my statement was, in fact, a joke. My inscrutable delivery may have cost me a friendship. While social technology makes it easier to connect, it also requires a new way of thinking about how we communicate.

In seven years, it is likely that translation technology will effectively eliminate the language barrier. You will need only a smartphone to meet and communicate with anyone—provided you have coverage! So what is the trade-off for such novel convenience? What do we lose when we connect in digital space?

Learning a new language enriches the way we think and gives us a new perspective. Ordering curry via iPhone does not offer the depth of experience that comes from learning about how a different culture understands the world. In our adoption of technological convenience, we lose the chance to grow, be challenged, and deepen our understanding of the world. Language learning also increases creativity, cognitive flexibility, and articulation of challenging ideas. Gray and white matter grow; brain plasticity increases. 

This trade-off of meaning and capacity for convenience isn’t technology’s fault. Social technology behaves as engineered, and if it doesn’t do what we hoped it might, it’s a failure of imagination and design. So the question remains, can our technology create a space to help us participate in a generative civic conversation? 

In the early ’90s, after gaining its independence from the failed U.S.S.R., Estonia began building extensive new communication infrastructure. Internet access became a basic human right and communication networks expanded to even the most rural citizens. 

Estonia designed a digital space to engage in civic conversation by committing to e-governance built on four principles—decentralization, interconnectivity, open platform, and open-ended process. Features were added for convenience: Citizens pay their parking tickets on their phones and vote by internet. But the e-governance platform enables richer engagement too. Citizens have access to government decision-making, legislation, and police policy, for example, improving inclusion, transparency, and direct feedback.

Estonia became the world’s best at e-governance by designing around this technology over the long term, and investing heavily in both infrastructure and digital education. There is a high level of connectivity and competence across the population. But avoiding “legacy thinking” is the true hallmark of Estonian e-governance. Innovative ways to use communication technology and understand the digital public space it creates are as necessary as the technological innovation itself. 

A remarkably connected and informed electorate and a society recognized as resilient and markedly entrepreneurial (You may have heard of Skype) have resulted for Estonia. It’s the enviable fruit of 20-plus years of clear intention, thoughtful design, sustained effort, and resource allocation—it can be done. But why haven’t we duplicated it?

Technology is an extension of us. It both creates and reflects our needs and use of it. If we want our technology to enable richer, deeper civic conversations we must intentionally enable growth in that direction. The process must be open, inclusive, and participatory. But what we lack is cultural clarity about how we want to use our technology and why. What should such a digital space look like and how should it function?