Warmest congratulations to the Egyptian people, whose truly grassroots revolution has reminded the world what political action is supposed to look like. Although the work is far from done, and reconstituting a government by the people and for the people is perhaps the more difficult phase, it is right that they, and the world, should take a moment to reflect on a job well done.
Some are using that moment to praise the social media tools used by some of the protesters, and the role the internet played in fueling the revolution. While it’s plain that these things were part of the process, I think the mindset of the online world creates a risk of overstating their importance, and elevating something useful, even powerful, to the status of essential. The people of Egypt made use of what means they had available, just as every oppressed people has in history.
Twitter and Facebook are indeed useful tools, but they are not tools of revolution — at least, no more than Paul Revere’s horse was. People are the tools of revolution, whether their dissent is spread by whisper, by letter, by Facebook, or by some we haven’t yet imagined. What we, and the Egyptians, should justly be proud of, is not just those qualities which set Egypt’s revolution apart from the last hundred, but those which are fundamental to all of them.
Malcom Gladwell has become the whipping boy of the internet for having suggested however long ago it was that the social web is something that breeds weak connections and requires only a minimum of participation. He was right then, and he’s right now; he wrote a short post the other day defying the gloating masses (sensibly, but haughtily), and concluded with something commentators of the Egyptian revolution should take to heart: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”
It’s one thing to give credit where credit is due and admire the rapidity and resilience of internet-based communication. The new uses to which the younger generation is putting the internet are very interesting and point to shifts in the way people are choosing to share information. It’s another thing to ascribe to these things powers they don’t have, powers that rest in the people who use them. It sounds like quibbling, but it’s an important distinction. Facebook greased the gears, but it isn’t the gears, and never will be. The revolution has been brewing for decades, and these same protesters have been in the streets countless times, after organizing by phone, by word of mouth, or simply as a shared reaction to some fresh enormity.
It came to pass that 2011 was when the Egyptian people could take no more — one might say it reached its tipping point — and the long-running movement became a revolution. It’s no surprise that people used the internet to organize — that’s how people communicate right now. It is easy to imagine this happening five years ago, or five years from now. Five years ago we would likely be championing the mobile phone as the savior of Egypt, as without it, how would people have communicated where the police barricades were, or found each other in the crowds? Never mind that the phone would have had little to do with the reason there were crowds to begin with. Five years from now, who knows what we might be crediting when (let us hope) other regimes are bent to the will of the people? El Shaheeed has worn other faces in other times, from Joan of Arc to Rosa Parks, and will wear many more in years to come.
It emerges that the mode in which people speak is not as important as that they can and do speak to begin with. The triumph in Egypt was not one of technology, but of a new, younger point of view that naturally incorporated technology in its methods. The role of the social web must be acknowledged, but stacks up unfavorably to the significance of traditional media like Al Jazeera (which documented and distributed information extremely efficiently), older enabling technology that has achieved saturation (i.e. mobile phones and digital cameras), and more important than any of these things, the dedication and on-the-streets action of people young and old who have been demonstrating and protesting for years.
I don’t want to restate Gladwell’s position on the strengths and weaknesses of social media. He stated them well enough to begin with, and I sincerely believe that the backlash to his attack (if you can call it that) on the internet’s holy cow is based in willful misunderstanding and wishful thinking. It’s a variation of the mindset of the man with the hammer, in which every problem appears to be a nail. Today’s hammer is the social web. I doubt we’ll all ever see eye to eye, but we can at least voice our opinions, which vary wildly even among us here at TechCrunch, as evidenced by the other editorials with which this piece shares the front page (and to which I am trying to resist addressing directly). The democratization of information is a very good thing, and the internet is a powerful tool. I’m glad the people of Egypt could use Facebook and Twitter as part of their revolution, but I’m confident that even if they hadn’t, or if the government had made it impossible, they would have achieved this by other means.