Observers from around the world have pointed out that, like it or not, social media are virtual world players in the real world of politics, not just neutral transmitters of news. Again, it is the merger of you and your texting, you and your images, you and your avatar in a gaming environment, and so on that changes the emotional appeal of the narrative landscape. And with how you feel about that changed narrative landscape comes other changes, not the least of which is the possibility of regime changes, or democracy, or rebellion, for better or worse. What was once "ironic self-awareness" has morphed into engagement with an emotional edge .
It is as if we have entered what John Bickle and Sean Keating call "Storytelling 2.0." In this new environment:
"State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology both uphold the idea that we create our "selves" through narrative. " New communicative interfaces allow for novel narrative interactions and constructions. Multi-user domains (MUDs), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), hypertext and cybertext all loosen traditional narrative structure. Digital narratives, in their extremes, are co-creations of the authors, users and media. Multiple entry points into continuously developing narratives are available, often for multiple co-constructors."
So far, so cool, right? But it is wise to remember that every advance in communication has brought with it a dark side. Social media used to fuel uprisings and organize mass demonstrations may bring democracy to Tunisia and even Egypt or Lebanon, but democracy can be a many-splintered thing. Democracy brought Hamas into power in Palestine, and Hezbollah is making the same bid in Lebanon. So there is democracy 1.0 of the variety President Bush wanted to bring to the Middle East and North Africa, and then there is democracy 2.0, which is a very different narrative about what that means in those regions.
But that is not even close to my central worry. As a person who spends part of every day studying violent extremism at home and abroad, I take to heart a recent analysis by Jarrett Brachman and Alix Levine about the viral spread of Anwar al-Awlaki as not only a purveyor of radical Islamic hatred and calls to jihad, but as an icon who appeals to youth. Brachman and Levine propose a "dynamic model" to:
"walk the reader, step-by-step, through the mechanics driving the interplay between online and physical al-Qaeda mobilization. Al-Awlaki's original content is objectified, repackaged, and even commoditized in al-Qaeda's virtual economy.
Fans have been transformed from passive consumers into active reproducers of al-Qaeda content: anyone can now be an al-Qaeda propagandist."
So what we have is a way for young people to role-play a violent extremist with the hope of becoming, as the authors of this study phrase it, "the next Al Qaeda Idol." Avatar envy crosses over from the narrative construction of a virtual self based on making a copy of an appealing image through progressive steps (alienation, replication, and performativity) to a real self who wants to take that newly minted self into the real world, often with violent results. The authors, after providing a case study of one such figure (Abu Dujanah) conclude: "The online al-Qaeda movement has created an expectation--particularly given the influence of Abu Dujanah--that Internet participants will try to live up to their virtual selves in the real world."
Which inevitably brings us all to the question, the networked narrative game, of "what if?" We know the U. S. Department of State and the U. S. Department of Defense maintain Internet teams and tweeters to deal with emerging stories, and to influence them. We know that the military has for some time now invested in "serious gaming" to train personnel and try out alternative ways to shape and to respond to scenarios. Schools and colleges have virtual campuses, and there are courses structured as games. All of these developments are real and they are changing how we think, work, and play in the world. But are they also doing something else to us ? What if "
You fill in the rest. Because you know you already are "