Ramesh Srinivasan has been working as an Associate Professor of Information Studies and Design/Media Arts at UCLA since 2012 and as an Assistant Professor since 2005. He’s spoken at a TEDx event and been interviewed on NPR, Al Jazeera, and several other media outposts. Srinivasan received his undergraduate degree at Stanford, followed by graduate at MIT and postgraduate at Harvard. Since then, he has published more than two dozen articles relating to media and the information society, including “Bridges Between Cultural and Digital Worlds in Revolutionary Egypt”. Much of his work has been focused on the revolutions in Egypt and Kyrgyzstan and how social media and internet technologies have played a role in facilitating them. Srinivasan is currently working on a book similarly aimed at exploring the role of digital media in power, voice, and personal identity.
In “Bridges”, Srinivasan discusses the divide between the imaginary nature of virtual networks with their real-world ramifications. Online social networks have the ability to shrink physical distances and connect people across the global, but much like human networks, have no true tangible form. Srinivasan begins by addressing two questions he sees as key in the discussion of global networks: first, if the assumption that increased networking begets increased democracy and freedom, and second, what exactly the term “social media” has come to mean today. He does this through the lens of the revolution in Egypt and bases his findings on interviews with a diverse range of people in the country and their experiences with social media.
Srinivasan begins by bringing up some frequently made points on the significance of social media sites like twitter in revolutions and in aiding public discourse. He brings up the ideas that often social media relationships or causes are “weak ties”, ones that don’t necessarily manifest themselves strongly offline -- still a necessary component in successful democratic revolutions. Additionally, twitter and the like are far easier to monitor and use to spread propaganda than other channels. Malcolm Gladwell calls the use of social media in the Egyptian Revolution “the least interesting thing”, pointing out that the brunt of the action was carried out in person rather than online. Srinivasan counters this by pointing out that these criticisms fail to take in the particular cultural context, such as in Egypt, where social media allowed revolutionaries to discuss politics freely, something that wouldn’t happen offline.
Several “vignettes” are shared, anecdotes from Srinivasan’s time spent in Egypt in 2011 during the revolution. He collects the perspectives on the value and place of Twitter from youthful political idealists, hardened revolutionaries, and Tahrir Square. Despite the reverence and celebration seen for twitter in political discussion, many of the protesters on the ground had no knowledge of twitter, nor any way to easily access it. Srinivasan reconciles thesis of the importance of social media networks with general lack of knowledge of or disdain for social media seen at large by pointing out that even though the bulk of people may have been unaware of it, twitter was a key means of communication and coordination for the influencers of the movement. Social media was critical in getting messages and information distributed quickly, globally, and effectively anonymously.