I wonder what Malcom Gladwell is thinking now about the relevance of social media as a tool for promoting social activism.
This week’s protests in Egypt, not to mention earlier mobilizations in Tunisia that managed to end the 23-year-long rule of President Zine E Abidine Ben Ali, seem to challenge Gladwell’s idea that social media doesn’t affect one’s motivation to participate in risky social movements.
Social networks lowered the barriers to organize, giving Egyptian citizens the platforms to share ground truths, protest locations, pictures, and even distribute phone numbers of lawyers that could help the detained. Perhaps the real measure of social media’s power is that the Egyptian government saw it as enough of a threat to turn it off.
But we will concede one point to Gladwell. In keeping with The Rendon Group’s studies on self-organizing systems, we have found that social media may be a trigger for such movements, the critical material communication system. But it is the narrative – the symbolic meaning behind the movement – that determines the movement’s sustainability.
A close friend of mine participated in the protests this week and was moved by what she observed. She is a native Egyptian living in Cairo whom I met in Madrid several years ago during our graduate studies. We agreed not to use her name lest it endanger her.
Her below reflections are moving, insightful, and deeply personal. They illustrate both the importance of social media and of narrative, but more importantly, the great social change upon us in Egypt:
Jan. 26. I listened to the shouting crowds from my balcony yesterday, as groups of protesters were heading to Tahrir square. I wished I could join but fear held me back. Fear of being harassed or harmed by the forces of the National Security, fear that going through pain and humiliation would make me more and more hateful of our circumstances, and thus lose my stamina towards carrying on my efforts in making things better on the long term without any political confrontation.
Media manipulation and Twitter blocking changed my stance; it got on my nerves so much that I could not stay in. A minute long phone call from a friend got me out of the house, together we went to Tahrir square.
Yesterday was a firm answer putting an end to all the allegations and brainwashing that claimed that the current system is better than all other options in front of us; it was also a good revision to all that I have learned through my Political Science courses. And because I believe in what I’ve learned, I see a ray of light. If change doesn’t happen now, it’s coming nonetheless. We have changed, and we have proven that we want and deserve to change.
First, it is a message to the class of people who claim to be intellectual and civilized, the people who look down at the chaos and express that “this is an ignorant population who don’t deserve democracy,” as if they alone got the exclusive seal of democracy for being from a long gone aristocratic class, without possessing any of the democratic political culture of those countries. Yesterday for the first time in downtown, I was not sexually harassed. For the first time I see youth who are not part of environmental organizations picking up the garbage, and thousands of people, united despite their differences, sharing food, and water and exchanging opinions, carrying appropriate respectful banners.
Second, it is an answer to those who think that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only alternative. We did not see them in the demonstrations. I can say that the one person I heard chanting religious statements received minimal attention compared to others.
Third, it is a response to those who don’t value information and freedom of expression. Any contribution adds weight even through the Internet. I admit I was critical of all the Twitter fans in the past since I felt they do nothing but talk and complain. I apologize for that now; if it weren’t for those sites, the information sharing and above all the feeling of unity that was created through people’s comments and pictures, no one would have gone to the streets yesterday.
This has proved that each individual has a role to play considering his or her abilities. If it weren’t for the people who stayed home trying to find means of sharing information through the Internet or telephones, and if it weren’t for those who put efforts to transmit coverage of the events, we would have all believed that police officers received flowers and gifts in celebration of the police day and similar ridiculous stories. If it weren’t for those who shared facts on how to deal with the tear gas, many of us, who are far from experienced in the rituals of protests and demonstrations in countries like ours, would not have lasted these many hours.
Fourth, it is an answer for all those who accuse the political opposition forces of being traitors. They showed up yesterday and integrated into the crowds without carrying signs or statements of their parties, they joined united for one cause.
Fifth, it is a response for those who say “we are not like Tunis.” No we are like Tunis, and more. I don’t deny that I initially looked at the issue from a purely theoretical perspective. I believed that we needed to have a large base of educated middle class, rather than a polarized population between a struggling incapable class, and an elite indifferent class. However, yesterday proved that the Egyptian people have had enough. Even those who are not facing the daily struggle of finding food for survival have vision and have a conscience that pushed them to act.
We are a generation not raised on a culture of confrontation; we have had fear built into us since we were born. We are a generation whose intellectuals have been terrorized by the ruling regime, taught to conform and obey. Now is the time to learn the new rules of the game.
As I left the demonstration, I could sense the hesitation and confusion of the National Security guards, as if what is on their minds is “maybe these people are right.”
I haven’t been able to get in touch with my friend since yesterday, but I know we’ll get news from her and from many others soon. It seems that, contrary to what Gladwell states, the new tools of social media are still reinventing social activism.
Tatiana García is a media strategist specializing in Latin America. She speaks Spanish, Italian, French and English and is currently based in Bogotá, Colombia.
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