Revolution tears down the wall between the internet and us
Last October, The New Yorker magazine published a column by one of its most prominent thinkers, Malcolm Gladwell, in which he dismissed social media as irrelevant in bringing about social change. It drew as much support as opposition in intellectual circles.
Gladwell, the author of bestsellers on social trends such as The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, reasoned that civil rights activists in the US did just fine without technology, while the so-called "Twitter revolution" in Iran two years ago was nothing of the sort.
It is intriguing to wonder what Gladwell now thinks of the recent, social media-driven demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, and especially the emergence of the Dubai-based Egyptian blogger Wael Ghonim as a reluctant hero in the last few days.
Mr Ghonim, Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, was arrested by the Egyptian government on January 28. He had set up a Facebook page that helped to mobilise the protests. As news of his release emerged on Monday, Twitter went into meltdown.
"Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for," Mr Ghonim declared to his followers in his first tweet since being arrested. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reported that "protesters say [Ghonim] is potentially some sort of figurehead for them ... they have been looking for a leader". Where Gladwell claimed that social media and activism were distinct, Mr Ghonim has merged the two.
The recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt have, more than ever before, successfully utilised social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in the early stages to call for social action. In Egypt, the government belatedly shut down the internet and mobile phone networks but it soon became clear the horse had already bolted. The internet might not be the source of social change, but as a medium it enables unrivalled momentum.
In the past, regimes would arrest protest leaders and activists to quash unrest. Now they detain bloggers. In Tunisia, Slim Amamou, one of the country's most prominent bloggers, was invited into the new cabinet a week after being tortured by the secret police. In Egypt, internet services were suspended and pro-government protesters targeted journalists and bloggers, Mr Ghonim being one. Increasingly, these are self-defeating measures. As one writer jokingly tweeted: "Obama missed a great opportunity to say 'Mr Mubarak, take down this firewall'."
Gladwell argued against the concept of mobilising through social media, insisting websites like Facebook foster "weak ties" and leaderless networks, rather than strong relationships. These, he concluded, are counterintuitive to the notion of being proactive.
"Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?" he asked. Quite apart from insulting 600 million people, it was a staggering simplification, as if Facebook users are any more homogenous than any other people.
Clearly most Facebook users are not activists or even politically inclined, but how is that different from ordinary life? Perhaps more glaringly, Gladwell ignored the sheer size of a network that is well on its way to having a billion members, and the inevitability that activists will be part of it.
Facebook in particular has transcended the social media debate, and quite possibly how the web has been used. We don't "log on" anymore, as Gladwell says. We simply never log off. It is increasingly as much a part of our daily routine as going to work, watching the news or calling friends and family.
Gladwell might as well have asked: "Are people who have coffee and read the newspaper in the morning really the best hope for us?" We live in a Facebook world now, and we had better get used to it.
Activists have always used whatever media was available. If Twitter had existed in the 1940s, it is unlikely that French resistance fighters would have turned up their nose. And when change blew through Eastern Europe in 1989, there was a rise in smuggled Xerox and fax machines needed to distribute flyers mobilising underground movements.
When the tipping point of revolution came, it was not from the intellectual circles of New York and London, but from disenfranchised youth on the Arab street. The subtitle of Gladwell's article read: "The revolution will not be tweeted." On that point alone, events in Tunisia and Egypt have shown him wrong.
Updated: February 9, 2011 04:00 AM