With Twitter and other social media, NPR’s Andy Carvin monitored immediate, on-the-ground developments during the upheavals of the Arab Spring from Washington, D.C., through thousands of tweets and an army of followers that numbers in the tens of thousands. Now, he is in Libya, meeting face-to-face with some of those activists. He’ll be sending us periodic updates on his journey.
For the last 13 months, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the way protesters in North Africa and the Middle East have used social media as part of their uprisings. The Arab Spring is one of those great geopolitical shifts that occurs only once in a generation, not unlike the fall of communism in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Unlike prior social events of this magnitude, though, we were able to have real-time communication with the people participating in the events of the Arab Spring – thanks to the thousands of individual citizens documenting their revolutions over the Internet.
From Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Yemen, protesters pulled out their cameras and cellphones, tweeting and streaming every rally, every battle. And almost every day over these last 13 months, I’ve interacted with them, embedding myself among these activists via social media.
The idea of being embedded virtually may seem a bit disingenuous when compared to combat reporters who put their lives on the line when covering wars around the world. And yet while I never had to leave the comfortable confines of my Washington, D.C., office, I spent upwards of 18 hours a day directly engaging with protesters as they fought, triumphed and even died for their causes.
This week will be different. Right now I’m sitting in the dining hall of an airport hotel in Amman, Jordan, surrounded by a couple hundred Indonesians tourists enjoying their breakfasts as a pan flute-version of The Godfather theme cranks on the PA system. I’ve spent the last 24 hours commuting across three continents — from North America to Europe to the Middle East — and in two hours I’ll embark on my fourth. I’m heading to Benghazi, Libya, where one year ago this week a small group of protests ignited a full-blown revolution that eventually overthrew the dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi.
While I’ve gotten to know dozens of Libyans over the last year via Twitter and Facebook, I’ve met almost none of them in person. To this day, I don’t even know some of their genders, thanks to their careful use of pseudonyms. But for the next week that will begin to change, as I finally get an opportunity to visit Benghazi and the capital, Tripoli.
The revolution may be over, but the new Libya is just beginning. Militias still roam the streets of the capital as the interim government struggles to gain its footing. The oil industry is slowly ramping up to its pre-revolution output. And 6 million Libyans are finding their voices after four decades of oppression and fear.
I have no idea what to expect of the next week. No doubt it will be an unforgettable adventure.
(Andy Carvin is NPR’s social media strategist.)