The Arab Spring was supposed to be the start of a revolution. And in a way, it was. Online tools emboldened young activists to give voice to longtime tensions that had simmered just beneath the surface of society, creating a wave of protest that ultimately toppled the government.
In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky talks about the three levels of social awareness: 1. everybody knows something; 2. everybody knows that everybody knows; and 3. everybody knows that everybody knows, that everybody knows. Prior to 2007, Egypt was in the first or second level: people suspected that their government was corrupt and perhaps through local conversations, they knew that this sentiment was shared amongst their friends and family. But because communication was limited and the government controlled mass media, few talked about it publicly, and the state could continue with the status quo.
The age of the internet changed this. As Shirky notes, the internet collapsed the cost of sharing and coordinating, making new methods of organization available to ordinary citizens, methods that allowed events to be arranged anonymously, without much advance planning. The ability to speak freely and to share widely unleashed the third wave of social awareness: anger mounted; citizens were emboldened to speak out as they saw others doing so; and protests could be organized almost instantaneously over social media.
In her article A “Cute” Facebook Revolution, Basem Fathy argues that “the influence of factors (conditions, events, and timing) was much greater that the influence of actors.” I would argue, however, that Fathy underestimates the power of social media tools in accelerating and amplifying the feelings of Egypt’s citizens. A hundred years ago, it would have taken years for books about events to circulate. Thirty years ago, cassette tapes or letter might have circulated slightly faster. But in the interim, citizens’ feelings may have cooled or governments may have had a window to sense the changing winds and respond in order to preserve their regime. In 2011, communication was almost instantaneous. Rather than cooling, outrage was stoked with outrage in realtime. By the time the government responded, it was too late.
There were also some strategic decisions that helped organizers succeed. As Ethan Zuckerman notes in his lecture Where Social Media Meets Social Change, by infiltrating popular social networks, rather than creating stand-alone websites, there are automatically more people who buy into the cause, even if they do so passively (this is perhaps the one place where the long tail doesn’t work so well). It’s easy for the government to shut down a website: only the people who care about that cause will care. But by posting to platforms used by a broad swath of society such as YouTube or Facebook, many more people will be outraged when the government retaliates against a fringe group Suddenly unable to access there cat videos or soccer highlights, large masses of citizens will feel they are being oppressed, stoking more outrage. Similarly, by creating a Facebook page and then cost-posting on the platform, Wael Ghonim was able to reach new audiences and form alliances much more efficiently than if he had been managing a stand-alone website.
While these tools helped bring about an abrupt change, five years later I can’t help but wonder if perhaps social tools accelerated the situation too quickly, toppling dictatorships before any alternative or next step had been thought through. As a result, Egypt ended up with a harsher military regime and now grapples with a terrorist threat. The Middle East is more fragmented than ever.
Fathy notes that the Egyptian uprising was “a very large, loose network of young and old activists that at one point decided to gather together for common action.” And perhaps that was one of the downfalls of the “revolution.” Once the protests were over and Mubarak was gone, there was no unified vision or clear path forward. The status quo had been shattered, but what would take its place? It would take more than a Facebook group to figure that out.