In Tunisia on December 17, 2010, government inspectors confiscated the fruit cart Mohamed Bouazizi used to support his family. An hour later Bouazizi stood outside his local government office in the town of Sidi Bou Zid, and lit himself on fire.
That act touched off a wave of protests across Tunisia, videos of which circulated on Twitter with a single hashtag: #sidibouzid. NPR’s Andy Carvin located one of these videos and sent out this tweet: “Arabic speakers: Can someone summarize the protest chants in this video? http://youtu.be/DTOZEJjhWHU thanks! #sidibouzid #tunisia.”
Carvin got a quick reply via Twitter: “Translation RT @McRamTajouri: Crowd: We give our blood and soul for the salvation of our union http://youtu.be/DTOZEJjhWHU #sidibouzid.”
It was the beginning of a virtual conversation that would continue for months. Carvin continued to tweet as protests spread across the Arab world from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. At times, Carvin spent upwards of 17 hours a day on Twitter and sent out tweets and re-tweets at a rate of more than one per minute.
“I found myself tweeting revolutions,” Carvin said.
To explain why he became so engrossed, Carvin pointed to the newness of what was happening. “If you go back to any conflict prior to the social media age,” Carvin explained, “if you wanted to find stories of anyone who was caught in the middle of it on the ground, they had to be found by somebody in mainstream media …. It just wasn’t usual for civilians or revolutionaries to have their stories told in the middle of the conflict.”
Carvin has written about the experience in his new book Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution. Carvin acknowledges the irony of writing a 290 page book about work he did on Twitter, where brevity isn’t just preferred, it’s enforced with a 140 character limit per tweet. “There’s a bit of an irony, but I think the main reason I decided to do it is because social media can be so ephemeral,” Carvin said. “I had documented all of these stories, and I had archived it while going on. It seemed like an opportunity for me to go back and … capture them [the stories] in such a way that it feels almost real-time for those people who didn’t experience it the first time around.”
Still it wasn’t always easy. “There were times when I’m interacting with people who are in mortal danger, yet I’m doing it while sitting at a McDonalds with my kids,” Carvin said. “It creates a kind of stress and confusion that can be hard to explain.”