Notes on Social Media, Egypt, and My Pseudo-Activism

I’m an outsider looking in on all that’s happening in Egypt.

Since January 25, I’ve been overwhelmed, amazed, and inspired by the Egyptian people protesting on the streets of Cairo and throughout the nation, following #jan25 and #egypt tweets on Twitter, watching the live stream and coverage on Al Jazeera English, and keeping up with blogs like The Arabist and the Guardian UK’s news blog. (This Mother Jones page, “What’s Happening in Egypt Explained,” is a helpful resource of compiled sources and multimedia from the past week, too.)

After reading a protest-related New Yorker piece from today, “A Policeman’s Engagement,” I stumbled upon Malcolm Gladwell’s October 2010 essay, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted,” which has made me think about the incredible power and role of social media, namely Twitter and Facebook, in the Egyptian people’s fight for freedom and change, and the resulting pseudo-activism—of those not directly affected by what happens in Egypt, like me—that Gladwell discusses in his piece.

In “Small Change,” Gladwell notes several events in American history that exemplify “high-risk activism,” notably an afternoon in February 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four black college students sit at a lunch counter reserved for whites. The waitress says they “don’t serve Negroes,” but for the rest of the day, they don’t move from their seats. The small crowd that forms outside swells to hundreds and hundreds of protesters over the next few days. People throughout the South hear what is happening and want to be a part of it. By the end of the month, protests are reported as far as Texas. Some 70,000 students participate.

This, says Gladwell, is true social activism.

I spend more time online than not—not just because the nature of my work requires it, but because I value the information and connections I have built online, both professionally and personally. If you don’t feel social media networks like Twitter and Facebook add value to your life, that’s fine; after my own experimentation with these tools, I have learned how to use them effectively—to connect and collaborate with likeminded media professionals and travelers, to promote my writing and photography, and to curate news and trends on ideas and issues that matter to me, all in one place.

Says Gladwell on social media: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution.” I have always been amazed by the Internet: what it teaches me, who I meet, how it inspires me. This week in particular, the influx of media and information about the protests in Egypt—in the form of tweets, YouTube videos, blog posts of fragmented thoughts and Twitpics, ground-level audio clips—is so powerful, so constant, and so raw that it’s paralyzing at times to absorb it all. But it’s a good kind of frozen—to have access to all this information, to watch these images and real-time streams from the Middle East.

I’m on-the-fence about Malcolm Gladwell in general—I think his books (from The Tipping Point to Outliers) are more of the same. (Amusing digression: Seen this?) I’ll admit I dove into this piece irritated, especially given the title and subtitle. Small change? The revolution will not be tweeted?

Whatever, asshole. I’m part of this social media generation you imply is powerless, and I am certainly not insignificant.

After reading his piece, however, I agreed with him.

Social media connects us, pushes us to collaborate, enables innovation, and celebrates equal participation (think Wikipedia). But Gladwell asserts that social media networks are “built around weak ties” that “seldom lead to high-risk activism.” On a Facebook page, I am asked to donate funds to a friend who is walking in an event for breast cancer awareness. Or on Twitter, someone asks me to donate money to a project that will build a school in India or provide supplies to students in Honduras. And I participate in such things, because why not? I have the time and the money to do so—it takes little effort.

This passive activism is the result of these kinds of social media efforts. We are not asked to do too much, Gladwell says—”That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf.” Whether I’m running an AIDS marathon (which I did in New Orleans in 2004) or visiting the hospital for a bone marrow testing (which I did for a high school friend who had leukemia), these acts don’t require me to do much: No challenge of the status quo. No physical danger.

I have never risked my life in the way those four students did, in North Carolina in the volatile sixties.

I have never protested on the streets and demanded that my president step down from his 30-year-rule and prayed for basic freedoms and the ability to vote for my leaders.

What have I done? Or the current question: what am I doing now? I read the passionate, desperate tweets from brave protesters on my computer screen. I am deeply inspired, I comment on other’s tweets, I share articles on Facebook. I feel like I’m participating.

But, I am not.

“Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice,” writes Gladwell.

These words stunned me at first. But after thinking about it, in regard to my own actions, I realize he is on point. I wish he wasn’t.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

5 thoughts on “Notes on Social Media, Egypt, and My Pseudo-Activism

  1. Gonna go down and address some points here and there, so it may sound disjointed.

    –Had you gotten here first, I probably wouldn’t have ignored your comment and approved it anyway. Sort of goes along with what I was saying about intending to write with one POV in mind, only to steer the other way as I was writing. I think it’s okay, great even, to capture thoughts on the page, even if they change — or the point wasn’t effectively made. Continued dialogue, discourse… all good.

    –Totally see the pros and cons of the spread of raw, less easily verified information, esp. via tweets. The danger of this is that not everyone with access to social media (in the U.S. and abroad) has the resources or critical thinking skills to sift through this raw, immediate information and determine what is “reliable,” whatever that means. Things are taken out of context, information is appropriated unintentionally (or intentionally), etc. Media and digital literacy is more important than ever (but that is another topic entirely, and a very important one, too).

    –Yeah, the idea of meaningful sacrifice is tricky. So, because I admit I wouldn’t take a bullet for a particular cause, my support in other forms is meaningless? Honestly, I don’t know. Still thinking about this.

    –Totally agree…much of this comes down to perspective.

    –Lastly, you used the word “fluid” somewhere (though can’t find it and don’t remember the context), but it reminded me of your tweet about boho art installations. Didn’t reply to that, but have to say that almost made me spit out my coffee.

    Cheers, Nick.

  2. A typically thought-provoking post, Cheri, and one obviously close to my heart given the current events in Egypt. I haven’t, I admit, read Gladwell’s original article – I started to, then noticed it was 5 pages long, and I’m desperately in need of some off-time! But I’d like to offer a few thoughts in response anyway:

    1. I think Egypt has unequivocally shown the powerful role social networks can play in organizing and sustaining dissent. Much of the organization and communication was done through the Khaled Said memorial Facebook page. twitter is being used by demonstrators to keep in touch, with real-time information (of course often unverified / subjective / whatever) about all sorts of things, from the location of army checkpoints and mobs, to tips on how to deal with tear gas, to pictures and videos of abuse / inspiring demos. When the mobile networks were taken down along with the internet, a handful of activists somehow managed to circumvent the Internet block, and this was one of the few ways to share info. All of this, of course, against a backdrop of state misinformation and fear-mongering.

    2. twitter in particular has allowed journalists and bloggers, both Egyptian and foreign, to get information out to the wider world. The guardian – especially during the early days of the uprising, when comms networks were severely disrupted – ran a lot of tweets on its live blog. Some proved false, many true. (and incidentally, if we trust a journalist’s professional judgement and objectivity when reporting in a paper or online article, should we not do the same when it comes down to an 140 character report – subjectivity of immediate and incomplete experience notwithstanding?) Without the outflow of information – and here, one can argue TV coverage is more important – the uprising would have been brutally crushed by now.

    3. ““Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice,” writes Gladwell.

    These words stunned me at first. But after thinking about it, in regard to my own actions, I realize he is on point. I wish he wasn’t.”

    – I agree, and disagree. If people are protesting via social networks rather than on the ground, then this might hold water. But, in Egypt at least at the moment, many protesters on the ground are using twitter / facebook / youtube / blogs etc to get information out. It’s not a substitute. And if you are hundreds of miles away, what “meaningful sacrifice” could you make anyway? Hop on a plane and head over? Sure, you can demonstrate outside the embassy in one’s home town, or write your congressman or MP or whatever. But these involve no “meaningful sacrifice” anyway. Or are we meant to avoid and denigrate any form of protest that doesn’t involve meaningful sacrifice? (whatever that even means)

    4. By sharing information about what is happening in Egypt, you are participating. Perhaps not that productively, and certainly not to the same extent that people on the ground in Egypt are. But you do what you can. You are sharing information with the outside world, depending on who your friends and followers are you may be sharing it with people actually on the ground who are relying on this flow of info (so a lot does depend on how connected you are to the parties involved), and you are showing solidarity. This is important. Believe me, I’ve struggled over my “role” in what’s happening in Egypt, and questioned whether my blog posts, facebook updates and endless tweets are achieving something. I have to believe they do; I do believe they do. And speaking to friends in Egypt, they are all grateful for whatever form of coverage and whatever form of support they can get. Similarly, many people in the US for example have messaged me to say thanks, because coverage there – in the early days at least – was poor.

    Phew. Sorry for the rather badly thought out rant. This is something I do plan to write about some time soon, once all (some of?) the dust has settled, and I’ve got my own thoughts better in order.

    It’s a really tricky subject. Thanks for bringing it up! Oh, and see you on twitter ; )

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nick. The past week, I’d wanted to write something about what was happening. Initially, I thought not to — even thought it was inappropriate — because who was I? What do I have to say or do, being so far away, disconnected from those living there?

      Still, I quickly saw the power of Twitter in spreading information, also wanted to share what I thought was resourceful-amazing-scary-provoking-inspiring-insane, and more thoughts swirled in my head about what was happening. So, I started to write the post.

      Interestingly, I planned to write a post that made the opposite point — that I was participating, that I was somehow making a difference. And I dunno what happened, but I just starting going the other way. Maybe I started to feel silly. Me? An activist? I didn’t even go to the Civic Center when people gathered in San Francisco to protest.

      BUT, I hear you. Loud and clear. And I agree with this writer at The Awl. And others who think Gladwell is wrong, wrong, wrong.

      I agree with you. And also disagree with you. Ultimately, the post comments on my actions (or inactions), and the only person I set out to criticize was me.

      I also agree — it’s a tricky subject. And we’re dealing largely with our emotions, too, which are quite fickle at the moment. I may feel different as the weeks pass.

      See you soon. I think. More on that when I can.

      1. Damn – you got here before me! I was going to leave a comment asking you to ignore the above comment: it was written in haste, and with little thought, and perhaps came off as overly defensive. I know your post wasn’t intended as any form of criticism.

        It’s interesting that you set out to write one point of view, yet came round to another as you were writing. That’s the power & danger of words, isn’t it? Through defining and therefore constraining our thoughts, we perhaps realize we don’t really think what we thought we did, OR perhaps we end up pinning something to the page that doesn’t fully reflect our range of thoughts and emotions.

        Incidentally, the emotion you express here – “Initially, I thought not to — even thought it was inappropriate — because who was I? What do I have to say or do, being so far away, disconnected from those living there?” – is one I can still very much relate to, despite being so invested in the country.

        Anyway… here’s what I meant to write yesterday (and apologies for another essay-length comment on your blog!):

        When it comes to social media and activism, I think there are different strands we need to unpick. I’ll use Egypt as the example.

        1. Use of social media by activists/protesters/journalists in-country to organize and co-ordinate on the ground. I think it’s clear and undeniable how important a role Facebook and twitter have played in the current uprising. I won’t go into the reasons again, but will add one more point. I suspect one of the criticisms of its influence will be that Egypt (outside Cairo in particular) does not have massive Internet penetration. But even in the most remote parts of the country, there is access. Everyone will know someone who knows someone who knows someone who has access to the net. This information – such as the khaled said facebook page and the upcoming protests – can easily be shared offline, person to person, through very established and wide-ranging networks of people.

        2. Use of social media (especially twitter) by activists and journalists on the ground to share information with the outside world. This does as much or as little as any more formal newspaper/tv coverage, with the advantages and disadvantages that go with it being more raw, more immediate, less easily verified, and from more sources than “traditional” news. I strongly maintain that without the volume of first hand tweets coming directly from participants in the demonstrations, as well as from the journalists covering them (who in many cases were also participating directly), coverage of what’s happening in Egypt would have been nowhere near so comprehensive. And as I said above, I suspect the uprising would have been crushed.

        3. Use of social media (especially twitter) by people outside the country to share information. In other words, to what extent are you participating as an outsider? Well, as I mentioned in the comment before, a lot comes down to who you (by which of course I mean “one”, not “you” in particular!) are sharing information with. Depending on who you are reaching, you could be helping the flow and spread of information on the ground, or you could “merely” be spreading it to the wider world, perhaps to people who are not getting much mainstream coverage of events.

        4. How much “good” this really does I don’t know. But I do believe it helps, if “only” to show solidarity with the demonstrators, which is important. And it is important to help keep the wider world informed. (And in my case, I know that on-ground information I’m RT’ing will be seen by others who are on the ground.)

        5. I agree that if people are using social networks INSTEAD of more direct forms of protest, then it could be described as a sop, or armchair activism. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Some people in Egypt are using social networking as part of their activism, as a tool, not as a replacement for getting out there on the street.

        6. The interesting thing here is how it applies to those of us outside the country. Is there a more productive form of protest we could engage in? Demonstrating at the embassy, or writing our MP / Congress / whoever. It might feel more productive, but I’m not sure it necessarily would be.

        7. I don’t really understand the idea of “meaningful sacrifice”. What is it? Would attending a demonstration in your own country count as “meaningful sacrifice”? Or is it only if there’s a chance of your being shot at? If our protest does not involve a “meaningful sacrifice” – either by choice or because of circumstance – does that invalidate it? This whole idea seems to imply that unless you are directly involved, you cannot be involved at all. While it is certainly not up to us who rules Egypt, we can still show our support for the protesters demonstrating against Mubarak (even if not invested in the country, it’s still a matter of principle that we can choose to agree with, or not), whilst recognizing that we are not necessarily supporting the “Egyptian people.” (There are lots of people in Egypt; they don’t all think alike.)

        8. Much of this is down to perspective. To think you are an “activist” because you’ve done a few RT’s and Facebook / blog posts, is ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean your contribution doesn’t help in some way. I think it does. And you don’t have to be a card-carrying “activist” to make a difference. We do what we can.

        Phew. OK, still perhaps rant-y, but a little more measured and easy to follow I hope.

        Again, big thanks for bringing this up, and helping me to start pinning down my own views on it. (Though like yours, they are pretty fluid, especially in such an emotive context.)

        It’s interesting that now things have at least temporarily quietened down some, I’m nowhere near so active on twitter. I’m still following what is happening closely, but don’t feel the need to share so much. It may be that I’m fatigued (oh, poor me, staring at a computer screen while people are laying down their lives), but I think it’s because I don’t feel the same sense of urgency, that there’s a flood or information that needs to be shared both inside and outside of Egypt NOW.

        Interesting times. And looking forward to your travel plan update!

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