Now the smoke, if not the actual protesters, has cleared from Tahrir Square, we can see that that the web played a decisive role in removing a seemingly-entrenched ruler.Not to say that Facebook brought down the unloved but rich-as-Croesus Mubarak. But we now know that the web and Facebook were critical in enabling the movement to wrongfoot the government and to survive in the face of attacks.
Google exec Wael Ghonim, the unlikely hero of the uprising, has dubbed it Revolution 2.0 – the title of a book he is writing.
The word “revolution” gets thrown around a lot, but here the “2.0” part is the more important. As Ghonim told 60 Minutes:
Revolution 2.0 is, is — I say that our revolution is like Wikipedia, OK? Everyone is contributing content. You don't know the names of the people contributing the content ... This is exactly what happened. Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was exactly the same.
2.0 here means the power of many versus the power of the few, using technologies that enable them to skirt the traditional roadblocks on communicating, organising and publishing.
Dave Letterman got perfectly 2.0-ed last night when his Sports Illustrated swimsuit scoop was blown by Twitter. An ad agency staffer, Rana Wardlaw, took a photograph of the billboard outside her office and then tweeted it, later telling a reporter:
They unveiled the billboard for a few minutes to tape it for the Letterman Show and then covered it back up. I guess they didn't cover it fast enough!
Not fast enough. When you’re competing against many, you’ve got to be quick. And smart.
Wall Street Journal has revealed how disparate activists used the web to outwit police to gain a foothold in Tahrir Square on January 28.
The trick was to arrange some 20 small rallies via Facebook, and which the police would know about. But they went offline to organise a secret, separate protest that police were too late to prevent from reaching the square. They’ve been there ever since.
Ghonim spent 12 days in detention. When he came out, Egypt's interior minister said to him: “No one understood how you did it.”
Ghonim last year founded a Facebook page, “We Are All Khaled Said,” in memory of a man believed to have been beaten to death by police. The page gathered 450,000 followers.
Not wanting to be called a “cyber-utopian” by Evgeny Morozov, I should observe that revolutions are created by social forces, not technology tools, and Egypt’s was sparked by events in Tunisia and driven by anger over rising food prices, repression and the rest.
Morozov’s argument that networked IT can threaten as much as enable liberty would be read in this part of the world with nods of approval.
Chinese certainly have got the 2.0 message. It’s telling that they’ve filtered searches for “Egypt” and “Mubarak” on social media sites, but not the wider web.
While events in the Middle East must be disturbing to them, they know that their censorship system would choke Revolution 2.0 at every turn. Start a Facebook page for a victim of state violence? Not a chance. Use social media to organise protests? Nope. Online discussions? Monitored, “guided”, filtered and if necessary “harmonised”. Offline, there is no prospect of setting up an independent political party or organization.
Yet even China, like Egypt, was forced to take the extreme step of turning off the entire web when violence erupted in Xinjiang 18 months ago.
Such reckless self-harm merely makes Wael Ghonim’s point: 2.0 helped drive Mubarak out of office. Autocrats beware.