This month, as protests swept the Middle East and toppled strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia, thousands of American adolescents rushed to see rising teen pop star Greyson Chance in concert. Trust me, there’s a connection.
Greyson Chance’s career simply could not have happened until now, at least in the particular way that it has happened. Chance was an obscure sixth grader until April 2010, when his performance of the Lady Gaga song “Paparazzi” at a sixth-grade music festival was uploaded to YouTube. It quickly became an online hit, and gained over 37 million views. His first two original songs together garnered 10 million views on his YouTube channel. In May of 2010 he performed twice on Ellen DeGeneres’s show, and by October his debut single “Waiting Outside the Lines” was released under DeGeneres’s eleveneleven label—a label DeGeneres says was inspired by Chance himself.
Thirteen-year-old Chance, in other words, made a 21st century end-run around the traditional record industry system, and was elected a pop star by the people. YouTube, founded in 2005, was not only his campaign strategy, but the ballot box itself.
The Middle East protests, of course, are incalculably more consequential than the latest teen idol. But they are similarly creatures of nascent media technology. From Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Bahrain to Yemen to Morocco to Iran, mostly peaceful protestors have armed themselves with mobile phone cameras, and Twitter feeds. They’ve uploaded shaky, hand-held video and poignant 140-character texts to beam compelling and dramatic David and Goliath stories around the world.
Indeed, at any other moment in the history of the world, the success of Tunisian protesters in ousting their leader—if it had somehow been accomplished—could well have been suppressed by government-controlled media in other countries throughout the region. But this time, the confluence of cell phone video, text messaging, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook made that virtually impossible.
Even as the new technologies are empowering new protests, the protests are driving new technologies. Software developer Virender Ajmani, for example, has created a Google Maps Mashup that plots recent tweets from Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Iran in (almost) real-time.
It’s clear that a new era has dawned, one in which events momentous and mundane will look, feel, and happen differently than they ever have before. It’s an era in which passion and talent and truth can inspire millions of people across continents in an instant. It’s an era in which democratic participation can rise and fall with lightening speed and in surprising places. It is an era of end runs and quantum leaps that make new things possible. Making the most of this era, ensuring that it upholds our values and improves the human condition, is up to all of us.