Egypt: The First Internet Revolt?

This is a bit of a break from the usual whimiscal and light hearted posts that I seem to have been obsessed with lately, but Peace Magazine recently published an article that my mentor Barry Wellman, my colleague Xiaolin Zhuo, and I wrote about the revolts that rocked Egypt early this year and the role that information and communication technologies played. With no arrogance intended, I think it's an important read that takes a sobering look into the recent debate of social media's organizing capacity.

T-shirts for sale in Cairo commemorating the January 25, 2011 revolution. Photo by Zeynep Tufekci. Used by permission

“What brought Hosni Mubarak down was not Facebook and it was not Twitter. It was a million people in the streets, ready to die for what they believed in,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently proclaimed.

Friedman appears to have had an either/or dichotomy in mind when assessing the Egyptian revolt that started in January 2011. That’s an oversimplification, ignoring not only the lack of opposition from the elites, military, and US government, but also the role of social media and the organized groups and informal networks that brought people to the streets. It’s clear that social media such as Facebook played important roles in transforming organized groups and informal networks, establishing external linkages, developing a sense of modernity and community, and drawing global attention. Their impact suggests that those concerned with the quest for democracy and peace should pay more attention to the explicit and implicit effects of these social media. Read the full article here.

In Egypt, Applaud the People...Not Facebook or Twitter.

I've been glued to my laptop and television for the past few days just watching the events unfold in Egypt, devouring all the photos, articles, videos, and tweets that come my way. It's absolutely riveting to witness the bravery and spirit of the Egyptian people as they take to the streets to fight for their rights. And I'm so deeply moved to know that a people can come together, irrespective of class, age, and religion, to push for change that is so desperately needed.

Why yes, those are people praying. (Scott Nelson, NYTimes).

It's funny though because as I listen to the news and hang out on Twitter, one of the most prevalent themes about the recent uprisings in the Middle East is the role of social media in mobilizing the people. Pundits left, right, and centre have been quick to assess the role of Twitter and Facebook in igniting these revolutions. And overly enthusiastic social media evangelists are in a frenzy to call the uprisings a "Twitter revolution". I think it's rather silly though to frame the situation in this way, completely disregarding the political, social, and economic issues that are essentially at the crux of this revolution. And I think it's sheer naiveté to believe that Facebook and Twitter are the only means by which people on the ground are organizing, as if their only point of contact were in cyberspace and not physical space. The buzz surrounding social media has truly been overwhelming and as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his infamous New Yorker article, "where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools". 

Of course this is not to say that the role of social media should go unnoticed or downplayed. I do believe that it has played a critical role in the developments in the region, not only by helping to organize internally within the country, but also by getting information out into the world with such ferocious speed, energy, and urgency. Jared Cohen of Google Ideas captured my sentiments best when he described social media as "an accelerant". These tools have undoubtedly changed the media landscape and the implications are significant. After all, the mere fact that the government of Egypt felt it necessary to shut down the Internet and mobile communications is testament enough to its importance. There's no dispute there.

But let's not let the allure of these new technologies overshadow the bravery of the people. Yes, digital media and communication technologies have made it profoundly easier for ordinary citizens to mobilize, organize, and coordinate their efforts and that's certainly nothing to scoff at. But at the end of the day, it is the people who are the driving force of this (and any) revolution. And Facebook, Twitter, cellphones, telephones, fax machines, telegrams, or whatever the current technology of the day is, are only tools that people have at their disposal to use. In the end, it is still the people who must take to the streets and risk their lives for a better future. And as we grapple to understand these new technologies, I hope we don't lose sight of this very basic truth.

(Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press)

Guys, My Bra Colour is Pink - Let the Cries of Controversy Begin!

So this seemingly playful bra colour meme that's been taking over Facebook for the past few days has, well, proven not to be so playful anymore with many crying out with controversy.

Rethink Breast Cancer's Save the Boobs Campaign For those of you who don't know, here's a brief run down...basically, some time last week a message going out to girls (and some guys) went viral asking us to change our 'status' to the colour of our bra as a way of raising breast cancer awareness. I got the message last Thursday from a good friend of mine and yes, I most definitely changed my status. Before long, my entire news feed was filled with a fabulous array of colours. Okay, fantastic! People are participating! I thought it was a fun and clever way to generate buzz on such an important issue but of course, it had to turn sour with some women outraged by the whole concept's sexual undertones and the supposed objectification of women. Personally, I think that's a whole load of feminist baloney. If you ask me, this whole line of reasoning only fuels the whole image of the woman as the victim and personally, I'm tired of being portrayed as such because uh, I'm not. And I know a hell of a lot of other women who aren't either. Have we not reached the point in time where we can quit the whining bullshit? Plus, has the brassiere not been used as a strategic tool in the past to make such important statements? Why not now? Crying foul at announcing one's bra colour is a) so immature and b) incredibly passé.

This is not to say, of course, that the campaign is a good one. Sure, I think it's cute, clever, simple and has the potential to accomplish some real concrete changes. But like many other cute, clever, and simple ideas out there, this one is lacking and most certainly not infallible. The problem with the whole bra colour meme for me is not the intimate details that it reveals but the whole campaign's lack of direction. Yes, people have changed their status but what does that translate to?  Who even started this trend? Because apparently, no one knows. Was it a cancer research organization, a patient/survivor, or just some random individual? And even if we do know, does that matter? How exactly has it raised awareness about breast cancer? And in any case, how would we define and measure "awareness"? What actions are taking place because of this? Are people donating more money to cancer research? Are more women getting mammograms because of it? Have more people researched breast cancer because of this development or has this all just been a silly game of sexual innuendos?

Rebecca Leaman of the Wild Apricot Blog asks the most appropriate question in this case, "Did it work?". So what the focus should be and the question that people should be asking is 'what exactly has this whole thing accomplished?'. Yes, awareness is the first and most necessary step but awareness without action is worthless. We need to think impact! And when it comes down to the nitty gritty, I think that's what really matters....that's all that really matters.