The revolution will be televised.
And the revolution will be powered by social media.
That was the consensus of the panelists at a discussion, “The Internet & Uprisings in the Arab World: Are We Already In A Post-Social Media World?,” held at Google's New York City office. The event is part of Social Media Week New York.
John C Abell, New York Bureau Chief for Wired.com, moderated the discussion. Abell noted the role of social media is being debated in many quarters, including the pages of the New York Times and the New Yorker, where Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point,” holds court. The debate begs the question: Why?
The panelists knocked down Gladwell's strawman argument that Twitter did not cause the popular uprising.
Abell said Gladwell is “staking out a position that no one is arguing against. No one is arguing that social media has created new behavior.”
Adam Penenberg, a journalism professor at New York University, agreed:
Gladwell is arguing with himself. No one thinks social media caused the revolution. It's an accelerant.
Micah Sifry, co-founder and executive editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, cut Gladwell to the quick: “I think Malcolm Gladwell hit his tipping point with that essay.” Ouch.
Penenberg drew parallels to the civil rights movement. He observed that civil rights activists “would have used cell phones if they had them. All of this stuff are tools. They accelerate the social networks we already had, that used to be called friends.”
Penenberg's observation echoed comments Roland Martin made on his TV One talk show, “Washington Watch.” Martin said:
When you look at social media and young people driving this whole agenda, it certainly reminds me of the civil rights movement, where people are saying,“Okay. We are tired of inequality.” And it’s just sort of just spreading like wildfire.
The panelists agreed that “it was the usual kinds of things that start these uprisings.” Economic hardship, including the rising cost of food, and the fear the world is passing them by are the root causes of the Arab uprisings.
In Tunisia, the uprising was sparked by Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who set himself on fire.
Sifry said there were “two vectors”: a sense of hopelessness and rising connectivity. The number of Egyptians who have cell phones has increased 60 percent in the last two years.
While all of the speakers were informative and engaging, I listened with keen interest to Susannah Vila, Director of Content and Outreach for Movements.org.
In 2008, I attended the Alliance for Youth Movements first annual summit at Columbia Law School. I have no doubt that some of the young Egyptians I met two years ago are among the “Facebook youth” in Tahrir (Liberation) Square.
Vila said social media “catalyzed” what was already happening on the ground:
It's a lot easier to get a critical mass of people because there's been an increase in the number of people on Facebook and Twitter.
We now know that Facebook page was created by Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Google executive who was arrested on Jan. 28. The Daily Beast reported Ghonim's page “sounded the call” for the popular uprising:
The Facebook page that Ghonim ran sounded the call for the initial protest on January 25. As the page’s following approached 400,000 people, and word of the event spread, it hosted a constant stream of news, photo and video, downloadable flyers, and emotional entreaties for all Egyptians to join the push.
The takeaway: Young people are sick and tired of being sick and tired of political repression and lack of opportunities. But alienation and anger were not enough to spark the popular uprisings. The Facebook youth used the new tools to organize and amplify their voices. Social media as an accelerator was less important once people took to the streets.
To stay informed, check out Movements.org Egypt Coverage.