On the morning of April 6th, 2008, a small group of Egyptian bloggers and activists made their way from one internet cafe to another, updating web sites and Twitter feeds dedicated to the day’s tumultuous events in
The amazing thing is that much of this activity can be traced directly or indirectly to actions taken on the Internet – and also that it was facilitated greatly by it. Of course a number of people and organizations had a hand in the day’s events but it is no exaggeration to say that none of us would have found ourselves in the midst of a protest if not for the efforts of one obscure woman from outside of
Esraa Abdel Fattah probably had no idea she was going to create a global phenomenon when she started a Facebook group in March of 2008. The group was devoted to a sympathy strike with textile workers in Mahalla al-Kobra in the Delta. The workers of Mahalla had chosen April 6th as the day to go on strike to protest declining wages and rising prices, and together with other creeping developments in the Egyptian economy and political system, the strike had the potential to develop into something much larger than an isolated labor protest. For months prices of basic commodities had been rising in
Within two weeks of forming the group, Esraa’s Facebook group had more than 60,000 members, quite astounding given that only approximately 790,140 Egyptians are even members of Facebook to begin with.[vi] The idea was for the group members to stay home on the day of the strike, April 6th and the idea soon took on a life of its own. In the heavily policed state of
Scale-free networks, blogs, and social network sites
What is Facebook, and what kind of network is it? Facebook, Myspace and other social networking sites (SNS’s) are defined by Boyd and Ellison as sites that have three features.[ix] First, SNS’s allow their users to construct a profile, available either to everyone on the Web, every member of the site, or only to their friends on the site itself. The second feature of an SNS is that it allows users to build a network of “friends” or connections to other users. Users can send messages to these friends, write on their public spaces (in Facebook users have “walls” where their friends can leave comments, pictures, and links), and browse one another’s profiles. This profile typically features pictures and personal data like interests and tastes. In other words they allow you to take your existing social network and publicly articulate it. The third feature is the ability to browse your own connections or friends and those of other people in the system. The degree of browsing freedom varies from site to site, but even when profiles are closed to you on Facebook, you can still browse that person’s friend list. The history of SNS’s is replete with individuals using the sites for purposes other than those intended by the designers. For instance, Myspace was launched to compete with the failing SNS Friendster, but almost immediately became a platform for bands to share their music, advertise upcoming gigs, and gain new fans.[x] Facebook was intended as a closed network for Harvard students, and has evolved into an organizing tool for political oppositions in authoritarian systems, among many other uses.
The state itself certainly recognized the power of these social tools and the threat that they represent to the state’s control of information. Shortly after the strike, the Egyptian regime undertook a campaign of delegimitization against Facebook and other Internet sites deemed a threat to their authority.[xi] Esraa Abdel Fattah, who was arrested and imprisoned for more than two weeks for organizing the protest group on Facebook, became a kind of celebrity within the country, and a cause célèbre for international NGOs. And on a personal level the state’s intimidation worked, since she emerged from prison telling reporters she would not be getting involved in any more online organizing.[xii] But the state’s demonization of the strike’s organizers did not seem to succeed in convincing the political class or prominent media voices that Facebook is illegitimate, that the day’s events were a failure, or that everything is fine in Egypt. No less a heavyweight than al-Dustur and al-Ahram columnist Fahmy Howaidy declared the Facebook organizers “hope for the future in
Much of the coverage of the April 6th strike struck the tone of marveling at the sheer novelty of Egyptians using the Internet to do their organizing dirty work. But the Internet has been working terrifically as a social organizing tool for years, and it’s useful to understand why exactly that is. It is also necessary to note the distinctions between kinds of Internet use, what makes Facebook different from a blog, and the different types of social action that each media form enables. Why wasn’t the action on April 6th coordinated through blogs? It is also necessary to note that a kind of a fatigue with Egyptian blogging has set in, which is driving the organizing and activity in opposition politics to other places. If you ask many observers – journalists, bloggers themselves, ordinary people, what they think of Egyptian blogs, they will tell you that their time has passed. As the Sandmonkey told me about blogs having a real-world impact, “It’s rare. We’re talking three stories in three years.” He was referring to a handful of major stories that were brought to the mainstream press by the bloggers, who he referred to as “pushers.”[xiii] And even if they are still sold on the relative importance of Egyptian blogging, they tend to cite the same few bloggers – Hossam El-Hamalawy, Wael Abbas, and Nora Younis – among a very small handful of others. While these individuals do terrific work, their importance has made it more difficult for new voices to be heard in the blogosphere. The reasons for this can be found in the science of networks.
As opposed to Facebook, the Egyptian blogosphere might be considered more of a scale-free network. A network, according to
This might explain why organizing has migrated from the scale-free Egyptian blogosphere to the realm of Facebook: the next generation, while of course free to start and maintain blogs, might find the door to internet fame and success closed to them in a way that it had never been previously. For an analogous example in the
Reducing transactions costs
Shirky writes about the obstacles – the transaction costs – that modern society has placed between individuals and the building of social capital.[xix] Building on the insights of Putnam (2000) that Americans are increasingly reluctant to engage in the group activities that forged bonds of shared trust and social capital, he argues that the Internet, and particularly, the new social networking sites that have exploded in the past 5 years, have entirely changed that dynamic. The tools of Web 2.0, he argues, make it easier for like-minded individuals to find each other in spite of their physical separation in far-flung suburbs and their immersion in long workdays and commutes.[xx] Fans of obscure television shows and supporters of unpopular political candidates can now find each other with great ease through social networking sites like Meetup and Facebook. And it not only makes joining groups of like-minded people easier, it makes forming them immensely simpler as well.
For it to be useful, Facebook must do something for organizers in the Egyptian opposition that they had difficulty doing with other tools. As Shirky argues, “a good social tool is like a good woodworking tool—it must be designed to fit the job being done, and it must help people do something they actually want to do.”[xxi] For our purposes, we can easily imagine the kinds of transaction costs that Facebook reduces. For starters, in an authoritarian system in which opposing the state can earn you an arrest or worse, Facebook allows you to identify other individuals who share your antipathy to the regime, and, crucially, you can check out that persons friends list to see if they are on the up-and-up. Not every Egyptian on Facebook is an opposition activist – far from it – and so another feature of the site provides another transaction cost reduction, which is the forming of groups. The group function is particularly popular on Facebook, where the application allows each group’s administrators to post a mission-statement on the front page, manage their own wall, and coordinate activities together. Joining a group allows you to come together with a set of like-minded people on any particular issue (fans of Amr Khaled, or devotees of Fahmy Howeidy, for instance). There is a sense of legitimation in this kind of group-formation.
Most groups are entirely frivolous. But of course, you can imagine the problems that anyone interesting in going out on strike on April 6th might have encountered in Egypt – the physical distances between Cairo and other parts of the country, social apprehension that a friend or acquaintance might look upon such an activity with scorn, worries about losing a job, the fear of retribution from the state – the typical problems of collective action, in other words. What Esraa’s group allowed people to do was to join an increasingly large set of individuals who wanted to make a statement about the political situation in Egypt – people who didn’t need to be localized in any one place. As Hassan Khalil notes, “The people of Facebook are sons of the middle class….located throughout the country.”[xxii] As the group got larger and larger it appeared that more young Egyptians were willing to disregard their fear of state retribution and join the group. After all, as strong as the Egyptian state might be, it cannot go around arresting 70,000 people, many of them wealthy and connected elites, particularly if all they’ve done is stay at home. And indeed in parts of
Crucially, forming a group on Facebook costs no more for the individuals involved than paying the costs of internet access. The costs of official political organizing in
Reducing social distance
Anyone who has ever used a social networking site can attest to the small pleasures of being reconnected electronically with someone you have almost completely forgotten about – some friend-in-law from college, or an old flame. You browse their photos, see how they’ve changed, ask them how they are, promise to meet back up when you get a chance, and then most of the time, the connection returns to its previous state of near-total disuse. The difference in the electronic world is that this kind of connection is now vastly easier to activate or at least keep in some state of quasi-activity. In Facebook-land, most users see “news feeds” of their distant acquaintances’ (largely trivial) activities. But every once in a while, you might see a news feed item from an old friend – about attending a demonstration, signing a petition, screening or reviewing a movie, and so forth – and that little news feed might lead you to take action, to join a group, or to do something you would not have otherwise done.
Most people are familiar with versions of the old parlor game six degrees of separation, in which you can connect anyone (like Kevin Bacon as the version popular during my high school years would have it) in six steps or less to any other person. Less well-known is that this little game has spawned an entire academic sub-discipline devoted to investigating the “small world phenomenon”. Intuitively, it seems almost impossible that a Jordanian human rights lawyer would be connected to, say, a Brazilian cocoa farmer in under six steps, but recent academic research indicates that the number of steps separating any two people may be even smaller than had previously been imagined.[xxvi] Other discoveries include the idea that people tend to sort themselves into social “clusters,” with small groups of well-connected people clustered around common interests or locales. Instead of all people having an equal number of social connections, however, it turns out that these small clusters are connected by small groups of people with almost fantastical numbers of connections – what Gladwell called “connectors.” It turns out though, that weak ties – i.e. acquaintances – are just as important as strong ties in bridging these clusters.[xxvii] This is because even a single connection bridging two distinct social groups has the dramatic effect of “shrinking mathematical worlds.”[xxviii] If so, then social networking tools may solve one of the conundrums of small-world social reality – the limited cognitive ability of most people to sustain more than a few hundred connections at a time.
The crucial point is that if weak ties are critical to building bridges between different tight-knit social networks, then blogs and social networking sites like Facebook might have an incredibly important role to play in amplifying weak ties, making them transparent and usable, and simplifying the process of activating them. In other words, Facebook takes dormant social ties and makes them active, takes musty acquaintances and wipes the cobwebs from them, and can potentially plug you into social networks you never even knew you wanted to be a part of. This is important for the idea of social movements because of past difficulty in simply transmitting information to people who might conceivably want to join your group if they wanted to. It helps build what Shirky calls “bridging capital” between diverse groups of people who might otherwise not think to work together for a common cause. To bring it back to the dominant trend here, Facebook is what allowed the Mahalla strike to “bridge” between the community of labor activists and the community of college-educated
Creating resiliency against the state
Scale-free networks are not invulnerable to destruction, but they do present unique challenges to anyone seeking to undermine them. As Matthew and Shambaugh argue, “networks are easy to access but difficult to destroy.”[xxix] For activists seeking to oppose the state, the disembodied networking of blogs, social networking sites, wikis and other forms of technological opposition all make it both more difficult to take out hubs, and lessens the consequences of doing so. A large number of nodes need to be removed from the system before the network itself will cease to operate properly. To put it more directly, while the state can conceivably shut down any one human rights organization, it cannot erase the accumulated experiences, knowledge, and wisdom of its members, which exists independently of their physical headquarters and is situated in a larger, denser network. On the other hand, it is exceedingly easy for the state to reach out and use repression on individual members of the network, as it did with Esraa. It remains to be seen what kind of an effect such targeted repression will ultimately have on the activism scene in
Toward the future
The trouble with relying on past successes in social activism is that it often does not work the same way the second time around. Consider the fate of the May 4th strike, the planned follow-up to the at least moderately successful general strike of April 6th. From the get-go the second effort suffered from a number of problems that Facebook, as an application, seemed incapable of resolving to everyone’s satisfaction. The first problem was the splintering of the strike group into dozens of smaller groups, so that even if you were an Egyptian and you were riled up by the idea of going out on strike on May 4th, there was really no way for you to know which group to join. In other words, while it may be possible to organize without organizations, it is not possible to organize without organization. The second was that earlier instances of state-sanctioned repression had the effect of dampening down the enthusiasm for the day’s events – Esraa’s imprisonment was particularly chilling, since it indicated that the state was aware of Facebook organizing and was prepared to take steps to put a stop to it. Since the idea of Facebook is to create an open network with your friends – away from the potential anonymity of the blogosphere – Esraa’s arrest and long detention sent an unmistakable message to potential organizers that they were being watched and might be punished for their successes. Early adopters of new technologies, and the social groups that use those technologies, have a limited window in which to take full advantage of the novelty of their new tools. This might be particularly true in authoritarian environments, where activists and opposition members are engaged in a seemingly endless game of cat-and-mouse with the state. It might be necessary for such groups to constantly innovate, using new technologies, strategies, and tactics to combat the state’s built-in strategic advantages in resources, manpower, legitimacy, and strength.
Another drawback to organizing through Facebook has to do with the flip side of how easy it is to join the groups in the first place. As Schultz notes, groups with exceptionally low barriers to entry also have exceptionally low commitment levels from individuals.[xxx] Any user who spends a great deal of time on Facebook knows how often groups are formed, joined, and summarily left or abandoned, largely because most groups don’t offer any value-added for the individual who joins them. Most times, joining a Facebook group is a one-and-done affair – users rarely return to the site of the group they formed, and often they have just joined the group only to make some kind of political statement or to show solidarity with their friends. The many May 4th strike groups on Facebook were failures not because the technology suddenly stopped working for them, but because the members of those groups were insufficiently dedicated to actually striking on the day in question. In this sense a group has to be tied to some tangible event or shared interest in the real world – such things cannot be invented out of whole cloth. The linking of the May 4th strike to Hosni Mubarak’s birthday apparently did not resonate the way it was supposed to.
Another potential pitfall in Facebook organizing, and “ridiculously easy” group forming, as Shirky calls it, is the danger of over-estimating the actual degree of support enjoyed by your particular cause. Because the truth is that these technologies do not, in and of themselves, necessarily generate new enthusiasm for striking at the Mubarak regime – what they have done, in all likelihood, is to make it easier for those who are already opposed to the state’s economic, judicial, and foreign policies to come together and form groups on that basis. In other words, what has changed is not the number of people who oppose the state, but rather the number of people who oppose the state who are now able to come together and virtually share their dissatisfaction with the state. Perhaps this is why the May 4th strike remained a relatively small affair – it’s not that those who pledged support for the strike didn’t stay home and hang their black banners, but rather that the movement did not succeed in securing the support of the wider population.
This is not meant to situate the discourse over blogs and new social tools within the same discourse that plagued the academic and popular debate about al-Jazeera – a discourse about the democratizing potential of new media forms. [xxxi] It should be obvious that there is nothing inherently democratic about Facebook, which is after all a corporation with financial motives, or about blogs, which can be used by people with malicious intentions, and which can also lead to greater extremism.[xxxii] Those who read only certain types of blogs and Web sites, for instance, can be led to believe dangerous and untrue things. Understanding new social tools involves understanding everything they make possible, not just what we might like to be made possible. There are pro-Mubarak groups on Facebook, and there is nothing particularly democratic about the site’s structure itself, which is still controlled from its corporate headquarters, fending off lawsuits from former partners and game companies, and quite far from the concerns of Egyptian human rights activists.
Return to the initial story of young, networked activists coordinating dissent on April 6th by blog, mobile phone and internet café. In the past, these groups of people would not have been able to share information so quickly – intermediaries would have been sent back and forth on the crowded streets of
The Mubarak regime is not going to fall because college students wearing funny glasses and sipping lattes start a Facebook group. In the aftermath of the failed May 4th follow-up strike, Hossam El-Hamalawy lectured his fellow activists and readers that “this technology should be complimentary and a logistical support for whatever we do ON THE GROUND.”[xxxiii] El-Hamalawy argues that “the general strike is coming, but from below,” and of course he is right. There will be and can be no revolution without revolutionaries. But Hamalawy himself has elsewhere noted the enhanced communicative capabilities offered by new technologies to those seeking revolutionary change.[xxxiv] The amplifying, coordinating, cooperative possibilities of these technologies should not be loaded with unrealistic expectations about their potential to magically usher in a revolution. April 6th was as much about the sacrifice and suffering of the workers in Mahalla – and their street battles with forces of the state – as it was about privileged
David Faris is finishing his PhD in Political Science at the