Much has been written about the impact social media such as Facebook and Twitter has had on the recent revolution in Egypt. Although, new media has no doubt been a significant help in order to empower those protesting, might it be that the ultimate overthrowing of Hosni Mubarak’s regime has been less about social media channels and more about new approaches to collaboration across multiple (of which Twitter and Facebook are ingredients) channels?
It is perhaps easiest to get a grasp of this idea by looking at collaboration within and amongst the following societal levels:
During the protests, the response of international politicians has been of significance. Two weeks before Mubarak’s resignation, Philip N. Howard (writing for Reuters) called on the state department ‘to stop backing individual leaders in the Middle East. Instead, the State Department needs to back networks.’ Over the following days, parliamentary members and world leaders from all continents (a comprehensive list can be seen at this Wikipedia page) were mostly recorded supporting the voice of the protesters, which with the abundance of media channels available – from state-owned television to MP’s blogs – highlighted a clear and universally shared attitude towards the events which were unfolding. In addition, joint statements such as those made by Prime Minister David Cameron, President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel also signalled a degree of heightened political collaboration.
Business and media
In business, there were also significant collaborative moves which went some way to help the revolution take place. Key players in the digital industry: Google, Twitter and SayNow responded to the loss of internet in the country by launching Speak2Tweet. This service allowed those without internet access to get their messages from the heart of the protests on to Twitter by simply phoning an answer phone. Similarly, as new information emerged from a range of sources quickly and consistently, traditional media organisations such as the BBC became curators of a diversity of news reports via their multimedia live blog. Although this is not a new tool for the BBC, the events in Egypt may well have been the biggest test for the usefulness of presenting information in this way.
At another level, individual experts in a range of disciplines – from journalists to programmers – were seen to be collaborating in interesting ways. This was perhaps best exemplified by the number of maps mashups which emerged such as those hosted at The New York Times and in independent places such as MIBAZAAR blog. These gave a good up-to-the-minute overview of new content from Egypt as it was uploaded (be it tweets or YouTube videos) – and offered better impression of scale and growth of the protest than any of the more filtered traditional channels.
Social media was key to starting the initial protests (images of Kahled Said are a compelling spark – see New York Times) and keeping the protestors organized and in touch with each other and the wider world. Yet, it is reductive to focus too much on Twitter and Facebook – especially when the Egyptian government succeeded in blocking such channels for long periods of time. Interestingly, it seems this move failed because ‘the crowd’ was a multichannel collaborative network instead of being solely dependent on a broadband connection. Of the protests, BBC economics editor Paul Mason notes: ‘The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce.’ This is certainly true – and in a multichannel world the voice of the protestor and that of the politician have near equal airtime. It is the collaborative effort of individuals within and in-between all social levels which is most effective at getting the best of tools available to them.