A few months ago I cited a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “Small Change” where he noted that Twitter and social media is really a “weak-tie” phenomenon and that it lacks the close connection required to promote a strong action or reaction. As Gladwell states it, “The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”
Then we have a story last week from TechCrunch of a young Egyptian man who is so grateful for the role that social media played in January 25th revolution, he named his daughter Facebook.
According to Al-Ahram (one of the most popular newspapers in Egypt) a twenty-something Egyptian man has named his first born daughter “Facebook” in tribute to the role the social media service played in organizing the protests in Tahrir Square and beyond.
Helmed by now-famous Googler Wael Ghonim, the “We Are Khaled Said” Facebook page showed up within 5 days of Said’s death in June and served as a hub for dissidence against Egyptian police brutality as well as a way to disseminate logistical information about the escalating anti-government protests until Mubarak’s resignation. Other activist pages like one actually called “Tahrir Square” cropped up shortly afterward.
Apparently the revolution will be Tweeted, but does that mean Gladwell may have been wrong about the ability of social media to effect revolutionary change?
According to the TechCrunch story, there are five million Facebook users in Egypt and growing, and there are more than 32,000 Facebook groups and 14,000 pages created after January 25th. And Wael Ghonim even thanked Mark Zuckerberg on CNN. In fact, one of the reasons it took so long for the Hosni Mubarak government to understand the gravity of the uprising was because they missed the cues that led to this revolution’; they were ignoring the chatter on Facebook and elsewhere.
Apparently, the new regime has learned from the mistakes of the old. Apparently the new military regime is using Facebook to reach Egyptian youth, and the Ministry of Interior has set up multiple pages to try to repair the image of the state police.
The impact of social media did help galvanize the Egyptian protesters. It gave them a common location to air their views and share information. However, as one of the TechCrunch commenters who actually was in Tahrir Square noted, “social media exist largely as a means to manufacture consent.” When the government blocked access to the Internet, cut off cellular service, and silenced media coverage, the people took to the streets to find out what was happening. That’s when the revolution really took hold, because people were connecting in a personal way using “Streetbook,” face-to-face interaction. So should we think of the Egyptian revolution as a gigantic flash mob with Molotov cocktails?
I tend to agree that social media is a place to forge consensus, whether it’s to protest a dictatorial government, or back a brand. People gravitate to things they are passionate about online, and they share that passion with their friends. That’s what makes social media so powerful.