Why You(r) Twits Won't Change Sheen or Gaddafi

By: Rachel Marsden

Two major world figures blasted onto the social media radar recently due to their respective meltdowns: Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and Hollywood bad boy Charlie Sheen. The two men don’t have much in common beyond palpable megalomania, hot young companions, and the fact that Sheen declared that he’s an F-18 fighter jet while Gaddafi risks being taken out by one. The most obvious thing the two men share right now is that they’re both the fetish figures du jour of narcissists with Internet connections. They are both among their own now in that regard. Let’s have a look at a few reasons why social media and the Internet aren’t going to change either one of them.

In the wake of being fired by CBS this week for going on a radio show and ranting like a maniac against his employer following various drug-related incidents, Charlie Sheen did the usual media rounds—and then discovered Twitter. Gaining more than a million followers within 24 hours, Sheen suddenly became more entertaining online than in anything he’s ever done as an actor. Actors can’t act manic unless the role calls for it, and Sheen doesn’t seem keen on waiting around for that kind of typecasting—or a salary. He’s going to give it all away for free, in real time on Twitter, while people interact with him.
Movies and TV can’t do that.

Every split second, a stranger weighs in on Twitter in an attempt to directly advise, chastise, or encourage Sheen, and when Sheen responds with a general message of “Thank you,” some of the more narcissistic among them figure he’s
talking directly to them and reading their twits. Some may even casually drop into a conversation this weekend that they were “chatting with Charlie Sheen this week,” in much the same way that my Facebook “friends” with whom my relationship is limited to one-way spam, consider me their real-life pal.

Whatever ultimately happens to Charlie Sheen, a certain portion of those million social media followers will claim influence. If he goes into rehab, they’ll say that he finally took their twits to heart. If the ultimate #winner finally ascends to that big podium in the sky, they’ll say they warned him by dousing him in a cold shower of twits.

Think I’m exaggerating? Do you think it’s unfeasible that people would think they have real influence over the life of a total stranger due to their ability to fling a few thought-droppings in that person's general direction on a social networking site?

Alright then, how do you explain the fact that these same people think their keyboard jockeying can oust an entire country’s government? And it’s not just any crackpot who’s thinking this: Arizona Sen. John McCain, former presidential candidate, has subscribed to this nonsense, crediting Facebook and social media with worldwide revolts against tyranny.

But can social media alone disarm Libya’s Gaddafi, for example? As the hard facts alone would dictate, the answer is a definitive no: Only 5.5% of Libya even has Internet access, and among those, there are fewer than 100,000 Facebook
users when last counted prior to any hint of revolt. In Egypt, perhaps the most prominent of the recent social media-credited movements, only one in five Egyptians is online. Are the twits holding out for Twitter and Facebook to topple Yemen? Good luck. That country's at a 1.8% Internet penetration.

In all these countries, protests gather and grow in major centers and squares—not in some far-flung corner that can only be found via Google Maps. As always, social media says much about the person using it and little about the real-world result. You know how sometimes you have a song in your head and that very same song comes on the radio? It’s not because you made it happen. The same holds true with social media and any kind of meaningful change. More realistically, while you’re busy twitting in a country facing historic revolution, all the people walking by your window toward the city square because
they heard the commotion outside aren’t doing so because they heard your clarion Call of the Twit. They’re doing it for the same reason people spill into the streets for parades when they hear what sounds like a party, or at least a better offer than what they have going on at the time.

If John McCain, for example, is so convinced that social media is the answer to dictatorial rule, then why is he, along with Joe Lieberman, talking about arming rebels? Only with BlackBerrys and iPhones then, I presume.

McCain and politicians in general can be forgiven for hopping too enthusiastically on the social media bandwagon. I’m sure the idea of being able to shake babies and kiss hands virtually is an appealing illusion, much like the idea of any meaningful change being brought about in this way.

There is, I suppose, some hope for Twitter and social media bringing about genuine reform: Charlie Sheen may in fact trade his drug addictions for a Twitter habit, and reveal the ultimate solution to the war on drugs.