Since time immemorial, technology has played a crucial role in transforming human society and civilization. The hunting and food gathering Stone-Age Man became a settled agriculturist with the discovery of copper and bronze. With Iron came greater agricultural surplus and stronger weapons that facilitated the rise of large states and empires. The Industrial Revolution ushered in the era of capitalism and overthrew the feudal and aristocratic order. And now, at the onset of the new millennium, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is forging new changes in human society and polity, the effects of which are yet to be fully experienced and analyzed.
A major foray into this uncharted territory, particularly in assessing the impact of ICT’s social media networks in transforming human society and polity, has come in the form of a seminal new study by the Director General of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), His Excellency Dr. Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi. The distinguished author, in his thought-provoking book – From Tribe to Facebook: The Transformational Role of Social Networks – has successfully approached the subject with remarkable clarity and fresh insights, derived from a comprehensively researched pool of scientifically accumulated and collated information.
The book employs the standard definition of electronic social networking, which refers to those “dedicated websites or applications that enable users to communicate with each other by posting information, comments, messages, images, etc.” It then highlights the meteoric rise and popularity of social media networks, which are now accessed by billions of Internet users and over 71 percent of people working in the communications industry. The study details the six types of social media (social networking, media sharing, blogging and micro-blogging, social news, forums and email service providers), as well as studies the big names of the social networking revolution (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, LinkedIn, Google+, Gmail, Digg and Reddit, etc).
In the ‘Introduction,’ His Excellency Dr. Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi enunciates the thematic premise of the book by postulating that social media networks are bringing about a societal shift today with the creation of ‘virtual’ allegiances, thereby forging a ‘greater universal society.’ Just as a tribe consists of a number of families or clans that share a common heritage, culture and sense of solidarity, the links made on Facebook and other social networks are forged on the basis of distinct commonalities and ideological affinities. Thus, the acclaimed author posits that human society is fast evolving from a tribal or even urban social order into “an almost infinite global orbit,” thanks to social media networks.
The book then explores a wide range of issues covering social networks and their impact in the world of politics, economics, society, security and media. It appears fascinated by the ease with which an individual can be in touch with the outside world today without leaving his or her personal space. In a highly insightful passage, His Excellency Dr. Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi observes, “when distances disappear, ideas take wings” and it becomes easier to share views and opinions as well as influence individual and collective behavior.
The study then enumerates the effects of electronic networking on societal developments. It states that these networks have increased political awareness among citizens, as communication between social network site users provides an opportunity for discussion and greater understanding of political issues, especially as these users often include intellectuals, politicians, academics and specialists. Thus, H.E. Al-Suwaidi observes, “Social networks have become an ‘outlet for the voiceless,’” and the “user has become a form of ‘media correspondent.’”
Fresh research suggests that social networks have facilitated greater political participation by the people. Electronic networking has also prompted regional and international institutions to encourage citizens to engage in their country’s policy making. Thus, civil society has become stronger and more assertive with the use of social networks.
In a subsequent chapter titled: ‘Impact of Social Networks,’ His Excellency Dr. Al-Suwaidi draws a logical inference from the abovementioned developments. He contends that with rising socio-political impact of social media networks “advocates of political change need not take the risk of actually taking part in protests, instead they can create significant ‘virtual’ political pressure through social networks where obtaining information and disseminating it without censorship represents an ‘information democracy’.”
While appreciating the politically beneficial impact of social networking, the esteemed author laments the frequent “negative public participation whereby individuals do not progress beyond cursing their general conditions, or at best merely phoning and taking part in talk shows to discharge their angst. This ‘remotely controlled’ protest actually freezes socio-political action and has resulted partially and indirectly from the prevalence of satellite broadcasting.” Still, His Excellency commends the fact that “social networks have become almost a community pressure group for or against policy planners and decision-makers around the world.”
A usually overlooked but highly important facet of this new technologically-driven social trend is the issue of ‘communication excess’ that the acclaimed scholar points out is increasing the malaise of ‘estrangement’ or ‘introversion’. “While some regard the enormous communication flux as enriching human intellect, others consider it a mental violation, a psychological pressure and an aberration of fundamental beliefs.” Again, His Excellency rightly notes, that with the rise of this phenomena, “the strength of traditional social relations have weakened between individuals in favor of virtual relations thanks to the elimination of geographic, economic and linguistic barriers to communication.” There have also been concerns that the predominance of English on social networks could eventually make it the sole universal language, which raises apprehensions about the future of other international languages, including Arabic.
However, the most prescient of observations made by His Excellency comes when he states that by establishing new cross-border relations between peoples, electronic social networking is building a new set of universal values. “This could lead to a globalization of values and principles adopted by the majority of people, with emergence of minorities resisting this orientation—sometime moving toward radicalism in defiance.” The social network revolution is also undermining sovereignty in its traditional view and the “emergence of virtual groups with their own special identities and affiliations … (could spread) a global culture, enriching approaches toward international and domestic policies alike.”
On the economic side, social networking is said to have the potential of generating $900 billion to $1.3 trillion in ‘social network shopping’ and is proving useful in ascertaining the likes and needs of the consumers as well as in promoting ‘brand awareness’. The book also covers in great detail the hazard social networking poses to global security as it facilitates radical groups in spreading their extremist and violent ideologies. There is a detailed description of a new class of these virtual warriors, such as ‘Irhabi (Terrorist) 007,’ who used electronic jihad in support of Musab Al-Zarqawi in Iraq and the anarchist group ‘Anonymous’ that is hacking government websites in the name of support for several Arab movements and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests.
The study also delves deep on the impact of social network in fomenting the recent unrest in the Arab world. However, it states that the role of social media networks has only been a catalyst to the simmering discontent and their importance should not be overemphasized. The exhaustive analysis also covers some of the legal challenges posed by social networking and points to the absence of any central organizing authority (or even ‘gatekeepers’) in checking violations. However, it is true that social networking is also proving highly effective in carrying out security functions and operations. The US defense company Raytheon has developed the Rapid Information Overlay Technology (RIOT) software that can spy on, as well as track and monitor suspicious individuals on social networking websites. Other technological innovations, mentioned in the book include motion tracking, gaze tracking, voice recognition enhancements, wearable computing and mind control technologies.
The book is a highly exhaustive and compulsive read — an intellectual tour de force. Short in length, His Excellency Dr. Al-Suwaidi has managed to pack in a lot of information and insight and for the benefit of its readers the book has a long list of references and detailed bibliography in the end. It also surveys at great length the books written by other experts on the subject.
His Excellency Dr. Al-Suwaidi has dedicated the book to the people of the UAE, who he notes in the ‘Acknowledgements’, have been “empowered by the leadership of His Highness, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the UAE (may God protect him).” H.E. Dr. Jamal Al-Suwaidi also expresses his profound gratitude to His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, “for his unstinting support for scholarship and research, and for the encouragement he provides to researchers and academics—particularly those striving to build a better tomorrow.”