Facebook got lot of praises for its role in the Egyptian revolt. I believe those praises are legitimate, since Facebook is a fantastic tool to get people together around a topic. It makes group communication easy. Now, I don’t think Facebook nor Twitter for the matter, were the catalyst of that major event. Revolutions have happened for a very long time. This may sound obvious, but the heart of all revolution is the people. If the people want to make it happen, and if they feel it can happen, they will get in the streets and change things.
The core of any revolution is to get people together, have them communicate together, and get them to feel there is movement. Nobody wants to go alone. If we go back in the 18th century, which culminated with US declaration of independence and the French declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (hey, I’m French, what do you expect!), there was a whole movement called “the enlightenment”. That movement was actually global. British, French, German, American etc… intellectuals, philosophers and historians participated in the debate. A key part of it was to make it a public discussion.
If you think about it, it was really hard before that to spread ideas. The Greek philosophers used to have disciples who would follow them everywhere to learn from them. Not ideal to reach the masses. Only a few had access to books. With time, it became easier, but censorship, and authority controlled how ideas were released. During the enlightenment, there was a clear awareness that things had to be discussed in different circles in order to move things forward. At the same time, an industry started to explode: publishing. It became easier and cheaper to create books, journals or newspaper. Easier to make, and easier to access. The combination of those two lead to the spread of ideas which then culminated with the American and the French revolution. People understood they were not alone to believe in those ideas.
During the WWII, radio was what made people know they were not alone. Many of my American friends often joke that France surrendered, but it’s actually not true. It is true that a part of France accepted a pact with the Germans (Vichy), but the French resistance actually played a key role in liberating the country. It seems there were using pigeons to communicate (same did the British), but radio was the preferred device. They used codes (or should i say hashtags?) to be the only ones to understand what was being communicated. The General de Gaulle, who had escaped to England, addressed the French on radio on June 18th, 1940, asking them to resist the Nazis and fight. This address is known as being one of the turning point in French history, as it was a clear sign to the “resistants” that they were not alone, they were many of them, and they were right to fight.
Fast forward to our generation. Dictators all over the world have mastered the art of containing ideas, persecuting their people, and limiting their freedom, mainly by controlling what’s being said, shown or discussed. Suddenly, a new technology emerged. A technology that they haven’t learnt to control yet: the internet. Broadband access, and mobile penetration are changing things at a very fast pace, and it becomes impossible for those leaders to control the thoughts of the people anymore. It’s impossible for them to convince them that what they have is best for them. It’s so easy for anyone to have access to what others enjoy (movies, documentaries, news etc…). And more importantly, it’s easier than ever to discuss ideas and to realize that not only you’re not alone, but that a majority of people agree with you and are ready to fight.
I don’t think Facebook or Twitter alone made those possible: blogs, email, instant messenger, sms, access to nyt.com etc… All those contributed to the rise of the people. It’s no surprise that the Egyptian government stopped access to the Internet, not just Facebook or Twitter.
“Change the world”. When I joined Yahoo! in the early days, I used those very words. I wanted to work for a company that was going to change the world. We often joke about it. But when the Tsunami hit in the Indian Ocean, we received countless testimonies of folks thanking us because Yahoo! Messenger helped them keep in touch with their families. It was very emotional. I’m pretty sure the same happened in other companies like AOL, Google etc…
The Tunisian and Egyptian revolts are just a new level of how big that transformation is. The Internet is changing the world, for the better and it’s just the beginning.