By Simon Mainwaring
The January 25th revolution in Egypt was an incredible achievement by its people and a truly inspiring example of the power of peaceful protest. Yet the work towards an effective transition to democratic government within Egypt has just begun. Meanwhile a debate continues to rage in the blogosphere as to the exact role played by social media.
While commentators such as Brian Solis and myself have argued against the off-hand dismissal of social media by Malcolm Gladwell, Evgeny Morozov and Will Heaven, Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen made the sobering point that it's silly to argue the issue in absolutist terms. Rosen argues "Factors are not causes," and insists that social media was neither fully responsible for the revolution in Egypt nor irrelevant, and that social transformation is far more complex involving a high degree of mystery.
With sobriety and complexity in mind, I want to take a closer look at the specific role that social media played in terms of scaling awareness and support among anti-government protesters that ultimately resulted in the resignation of President Mubarak.
The role of social media is critical because it helps to spread cognitive dissonance by connecting thought leaders and activists to ordinary citizens rapidly expanding the network of people who become willing to take action. Brian Solis describes this process as creating the necessary "density" of connections, writing "If unity is the effect, density is the cause." Similarly, Stowe Boyd writes:
"Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread. [...] And, more importantly, increased density of information flow (the number of times that people hear things) and of the emotional density (as individuals experience others' perceptions about events, or ‘social contextualization') leads to an increased likelihood of radicalization: when people decide to join the revolution instead of watching it."
So how was such density achieved in Egypt and what impact will it have beyond its borders? Let's consider this question in three dimensions - vertically, horizontally and in the compounding effect social media generates from one country to another.
i) Vertical Threshold: Compared to United States and Europe, social media has little penetration in the Arab world. In fact, there are only 21 million Facebook users across the Arab world. So how did social media play such a significant role in fueling a popular revolution? Let me explain by way of an example.
As many commentators have noted, one of the early catalysts for the January 25th revolution in Egypt was a Facebook page created in honor of Khaled Said, a young man who had been brutally beaten and killed by the police. This page became a focal point around which 470,000 "fans" organized their dissidence while a YouTube video about his murder was viewed by more than 500,000 people fueling further public outrage.
Inspired by the protests against and the eventual overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, the Khaled Said Facebook page then became a focal point for the dissemination of popular protest throughout Egypt. As such, the limited penetration of social media within the country was overcome by the fact that it first scaled vertically through key Facebook sites such as those of Khaled Said, 15-year old Asmaa Mahfouz and later, Google executive Wael Ghonim.
ii) Horizontal Expansion: Buoyed by the success of Tunisian protesters and emboldened by the courage of young protesters on their own streets, social media also helped expand the ranks of Egyptians in Tahrir Square from young, well-educated students to doctors, lawyers, judges, Christians, women and finally State TV personnel.
Such alignment around shared values counteracted attempts by President Mubarak to divide local and foreign support for the protestors. Tweets, Facebook posts and You Tube videos flooded the Internet also serving as critical, transparent content for the dominant Egyptian media outlets such as television including Al Jazeera English (AJE).
iii) Compounding Effect: From Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to Iran to Algeria and China, social media is also playing a pivotal role in scaling connections between people, in achieving density, in disseminating courage and in countering misinformation generated by oppressive regimes in many countries around the world.
The most powerful consequence of this revolutionary tide is to challenge the false separation between a country's ideals and its interests. By allowing citizens from all professions to align around shared values for the sake of their country's future, they are challenging the monopolies of power that have impoverished the lives of millions allowing them to re-assert their core belief that government officials are democratically elected to serve the interests of the people.
Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, observed thousands of Egyptians volunteering to clean up Tahrir Square in the last 48 hours and wrote about the experience quoting the aphorism that "in the history of the world no one has ever washed a rented car." As he concluded, Egyptians are now re-taking ownership of their national identity, pride and country after 30 years of an oppressive regime.
Just as Egypt followed Tunisia, citizens of other Arab counties are rising to the challenge of shaping their own futures in the face of political and military might. Social media did not make this happen single-handedly, but by enabling people to connect more rapidly around shared values, it is shifting power back to the people and allowing them to re-align the interests of a country around the values that serve all its people.
This phenomenon and the contributory role played by social media are a powerful demonstration of what I call a We First (as opposed to Me First) thinking and behavior. This mindset involves a fundamental recognition that communities, companies and countries must now embrace and demonstrate an expanded definition of self-interest that includes the greater good. To do otherwise not only threatens their own survival, but invites a revolution led by those united by shared values and connected by social technology.
Do you believe the current wave of revolution will continue through the Arab world? Do you believe such instability is a positive development?
Author of the forthcoming book We First, Simon Mainwaring is an advertising and social media consultant who recently spoke as part of a Levantine Cultural Center panel on cultural diplomacy and social media. Find him on Twitter.