If there is one piece of discourse I would love to retire from the public sphere, it is the “There is no such thing as a Facebook revolution” column. Internet skeptics get more mileage out of this straw man argument than Honda Civic owners get out of their cars. The latest entry is the New York Times‘ Tina Rosenberg, who argues against no one in particular that Egypt’s revolution depended not on Facebook but on careful organizing of the on-the-ground protests themselves. She even closes by basically borrowing Malcolm Gladwell’s analogy to the civil rights movement:
“What made Tahrir Square successful, in other words, were the same factors that made the Montgomery bus boycott successful 55 years ago: careful strategy, meticulous planning, strict nonviolence, unity.”
What I would love is for Tina Rosenberg to find someone who studies digital media and thinks that street tactics were unimportant in the Egyptian revolution. My own interviews with activists and planners suggest that at least 10 days of careful on-the-ground planning – including timing how long it would take to march down certain streets as well as producing tactics to produce the illusion of greater numbers – went into the Tahrir protests. I don’t think any rational person would argue that the “digerati” put out the call on Facebook and then magically there were a million people in the streets. Why must these two things be mutually exclusive? Egyptian organizers also learned a great deal about protest tactics from their Tunisian counterparts – and much of this learning took place with online exchanges, including back-and-forth exchanges on, yes, Facebook. This rigid demarcation between “on-the-ground” and “digital” simply does not square with the reality of today’s organizers.
Rosenberg is also almost sneeringly dismissive of the April 6th, 2008 general strike organized (to coincide with a labor strike in Mahalla) by what became the April 6th Youth Movement, because “the organizers at that point had no idea of what to do with these people.” Actually the April 6th group had a very discrete set of demands – effectively the same demands made by Kefaya since 2004, and more or less the same set of demands made on January 25th all over the country. But at the point there were fewer Egyptians on Facebook by many orders of magnitude than this past January, and ultimately the day’s events did fizzle out with little change. But where Rosenberg sees a failure, I see the start of a movement that both a) demonstrated the potential and reach of social media and b) launched a movement that contributed to the downfall of the Mubarak regime. Some “failure.”
Finally, Rosenberg, like Gladwell, misunderstands the role of weak ties in online social networks. She argues, “…social media always comes with a catch: it is designed to do the very thing that isn’t particularly useful in a high-risk situation. You can best motivate people through real friendships — but then you lose the mass component that give social media “friendships” their efficiency advantage. It seems that with social media, you can reach deep or reach wide — but you might not be able to do both.”
But of course social media do both of these things – they bind you to your close friends while also giving you massive amounts of free and easy information about acquaintances. We don’t just protest because our three best friends are doing it – we also do it when our 450 acquaintances all sign up for it too, or when we see 100,000 people committed to do something we believe in. And even if you buy the argument that we only care what our close friends do, chains of information dissemination can pass through circles of close-knit friends and still reach hundreds of thousands of people. That kind of strength in numbers makes individuals much more likely to take the considerable risks associated with protest in authoritarian regimes.
Facebook launched the April 6th movement. It launched the We Are All Khaled Said movement. It was the platform that disseminated calls for protest on January 25th, which built on years of digital organizing and dissent. I can understand why analysts want to emphasize the continuing importance of grassroots organizing, but downplaying the very real ways that digital activism served as a catalyst for the Egyptian revolution is also not going to do anyone any favors or enhance our understanding of these social phenomena.