That's what the headline should have read about James Buck, the University of California-Berkeley college student who typed one word -- ARRESTED -- and was released from an Egyptian jail after his detention by police for covering a demonstration.
His translator remains in jail. As do Egyptian journalists, bloggers, lawyers, human rights activists. As do bloggers in Saudi Arabia or all kinds of places where states control people's expression.
James Buck was released from jail for these reasons, and these reasons alone:
o His country has been giving Egypt the lion's share of its foreign aid for decades
o He had a U.S. passport
o He was an affluent American from a prestigious college with connections
o The police just happened not to grab his mobile phone in time, which they routinely do
There's no reason to get all ga-ga about this, warbling on about happy little Orwellian thoughts like "Emphasize the good" or trying to vindicate the entire vacuous, vapid, self-referential blogosophere over this one little incident. James Buck himself had a good Twitter summarizing this topic as he was escorted out of Egypt: "America, fuck yeah."
When I think of my friends and colleagues in Russia who have been shot dead in cold-blooded murder for their journalism, or held in awful prisons for years, for whom a Twitter ain't going to happen, I get really sickened at the outrageous hyping this idiotic story is getting because of affluent Valley influencers, giddy blogers, Twitter twits, and the mainstream media, trying desperately to be cool and groovy.
CNN ran a head line like this -- I happened to watch it today: "Saved by a Blog". They called Twitter, which is really a kind of grand teenagers global AIM session, a "blog" -- which isn't quite the right thing to call it.
To be sure, the CNN gal felt there was a lot of hype in the room, and did her best to cut through it, but she just wasn't briefed enough. She asked Buck if he was an owner of Twitter, or perhaps related to the investors somehow. He gave her one of those superior little arrogant smiles like Zuckerberg gave Lacy, when she asked him about the billion-dollar valuation, and he pretended it didn't matter because he only wanted to make a Better World. Buck explained he didn't have anything to do with Twitter's ownership, and had only just begun using it. Of course, as I explained in my blog Mr. Twitter Goes to Washington, he found out about Twitter, got on Twitter, which is still in its relatively early days, precisely because he was plugged into the Valley -- he was able to get coverage of his mediocre little experience, routine for Americans in hellholes all over the world when they can invoke their citizenship and by extension the Vienna convention. Except...for places that commit massive human rights violations but harbour terrorists and don't get US aid, where someone like Emanual Zeltser, an American lawyer, can languish in jail without medical care for months. Hey, you do not Twitter your way out of Minsk, that's for sure.
Naturally, I'm going to keep asking about Buck's translator. People like Buck always use local fixers, and always are forced to leave their fixers in a fix because they can only help locals so far. When I last checked, Buck was using Twitter to get signatures in support of the translator but...there were only like 600. Maybe there are more, but that's pretty fucking low for a service using millions that supposedly instantly got like thousands aware of Buck's plight.
Buck, a young white college kid, idealistic and imbued with a sense of historical mission around his social media miracle, had an explanation for why his translator was in trouble.
"He doesn't have a network," he explained, adding that he, Buck, had the UC-Berkeley network.
No. Guess not. An Egyptian guy who is translating for visiting gentleman explorers wouldn't likely "have a network". That really wrung my heart. Thinking about a guy in the Valley, conceiving of the world as "networked" and "not-networked" as if...you could just...wire them in...and it would all be ok.
I just find stuff like that piercingly shockingly awful. Not only the naivete. The lack of history, and understanding, about the way the world works.
Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid for a reason: it is viewed as an ally of the US in the Middle East. There is much that America tries to get out of this -- stability, access to the Suez, peace with Israel, etc. as is explained. What it also buys is the ability of concerned college boys to run around snapping pictures of demonstrations.
Well, isn't it a good thing, on balance, even if over-hyped and naive? Shouldn't we applaud this sort of "victory of social media"?
Oh, not at all. Because it really is fake. And misleading. It makes it seems like all you need is a network and a Nokia. All you need is a Twitter and a ticket. A passport and a Pownce.
During my years working the Eurasia desk at an organization to help journalists in trouble, I calculated that I had handled something like 200 cases. These ranged from journalists stabbed and brutally killed, shot, burned, buried in shallow graves to journalists detained, beaten, jailed. A common pattern was an American journalist being able to leave a wretched war scene unscathed, or after a minor skirmish with beatings and jail, but leaving colleagues from that country behind. I estimated that through using all our considerable networking that this paramount journalists' aid organization could muster (just look at the board and donors), I was able to solve about 20 percent of the cases, i.e. get the journalists freed. I had an easy reason. My colleagues working on the Middle East and Africa had far more grim dockets.
There's something else about all this I find really disturbing. There's a deep-seated belief among young people on the Internet that if all they do is copy and paste news, chat about something, raise awareness, make a Facebook application (like this really strange one out now about war criminals) -- that they have achieved something. That the problem starts to go away. This is that curious phenomenon common to all social action, especially on the Internet and social media, that takes the wished-for, the covered, the blogged-about, for the real.
We all remember the story of Dith Pran, the fixer that New York Times journalist Syd Schanberg was forced to leave behind and couldn't locate or save for years, whose case haunted him. Dith died recently.
I'm a big believer in saying just because you can't do everything, doesn't mean you shouldn't do something. Madelaine Albright used to say this all the time. Just because you only got out the American kid and not the translator doesn't mean that you don't keep trying to do good with Twitter.
This happy little story is not really what it's about. There's a lot more to it.
This happy story came just in time (and I'd love to study the timing a lot more) when Twitter got another round of VC financing. Right around the time of the Buck story, @susanwu, the venture capitalist, got on late at night and wrung her hands about the seeming pointlessness of so much of twitter. Was anybody listening? Did anybody care? Was there anything out there except the echo-chamber of the blogosphere?
So VCs and those trying to land VCs DESPERATELY need stories like this to go on funding this particular social media venture. None of these social media ventures -- even Facebook, even Second Life -- have REALLY found a way to make a profit while also scaling and keeping a stable platform. Those three things: profit, scale, stability -- almost don't seem to go together! So they remain as kind of philanthropic efforts, while the VCs funding them who are Better Worldniks try to figure out how to flog them and make them pay, perhaps by selling them to another VC (being very far from the Valley, and looking at all of this from the outside, it really seems to me that these companies never really truly make a profit by making and selling a widget or service itself; they only make money by being sold to become a pelt on the belt of some VC or big tech guy. So they get bought out by Google or whatever, and that's the money. How long can that last?
And the other sort of underbelly to this overhyped story is the "power of the people meme" where influencers will want to try to grab the vast tails of social media and whipsaw them, getting people to do stuff. "Come on now, Twitterers, we saved James Buck, now let's get Obama elected."
I saw a guy once on Twitter who had this idea that he could convert this vaporous substance of Twitter networks into steel. He was trying to convince everybody on Twitter to pitch in and buy him a pick-up truck.
Stone soup. Bring your own onion. And plenty of pepper -- it's all water and stone.