Social networking is excessively prevalent in the twenty-first century. Gone are the days of paper invitations and fliers; replaced by Facebook invites. Gone are the days of gathering to flip through printed photographs and scrapbooks; replaced with the isolated act of commenting on online albums. Gone are the days of unexpectedly running into a friend at the local hang-out; replaced with tweets that keep us constantly plugged into what everyone is doing when they are doing it. Social media has played a role in solving crimes, electing head of state, spreading awareness about causes and more. Social media has become an integrated fabric of the entire world; so strong, that many media outlets have taken to crediting movements that have rocked the world to Facebook and Twitter for their success. Undeniably, social networking has changed the sphere of communication as we know it, but to give it credit for social movements that impact human rights and freedom around the world is quite ludicrous.
When the Arab Spring broke out starting with Tunisia, the movement became referred to as the “Twitter Movement.” If you type that phrase the Google search engine, Tunisia’s recent revolution is one of the first hits. The problem with this phenomenon is that the media is underestimating the power of human perseverance. The media is ignoring the intelligent strategies behind the spread of these movements. The media is handing over the strength of the human spirit to the internet. These are all glaring oversights. Human perseverance and yearning for something better is what creates social change, not social media. Social change through revolt and movements has been around since the beginning of time and will continue with or without social media. The Arab Spring is not a result of the internet, but a result of determination with the small assistance of the marketing tool: social media.
History of Social Networking
To evaluate social media’s role in historical events, social media’s path to high status should first be analyzed. The first version of the internet was created in the mid 1970’s (Slater, 9). The internet that we know it began its steady growth since. With the continuous contributions of little known names, the internet’s efficiency climbed to where it is today (Slate, 14). The internet led to e-mail and the introduction of chat-rooms brought a brand new method of instant communication. Chat rooms changed the way our world thought about socializing (Turkle, 1). Chat rooms were the first social network: one could portray themselves however they wanted to and talk to people from miles away about things that they did not know anyone else cared about (Turkle, 1). People could log in, meet new people and try new things.
Xanga can be traced back to 1999. It was one of the pioneer structured weblogs. Users registered with an e-mail address and password, uploaded pictures, wrote daily thoughts, and commented on friends and stranger’s activities. MySpace was introduced in 2003. It was the newest and shiniest toy of social networking. There were music pages, movie pages, and a larger and more mature audience base. MySpace quickly overtook Xanga.
Facebook launched in 2004 to a very small, elite group of people. Soon, Facebook’s growth led it to take the crown for social networking in 2008. According to Google, Facebook is today’s number one most trafficked website (Bosker, 14). Twitter was launched in 2006 and has gained rapid popularity. However, with its slightly different concept, Twitter has yet to overtake Facebook. But as with all social media experiments, only time will tell. Other types of social networking tools with different target audiences that have sprung up since the age of the internet and deserve mention are Tumblr, LinkedIn, Friendster, My Yearbook, and Black Planet. The internet is teeming with websites dedicated to keeping in touch. Regardless, this timeline demonstrates that social media has only had a decade to influence this planet and yet, movements have taken place across the planet and across time for centuries. One such revolution is the one that created the very country we live in.
A Short History of Revolutions and Movements
The American Revolution began in the last half of the 1700’s. By 1776, the United States of America had drafted a Declaration of Independence from British Control. Most people think of the American Revolution as a group of free-thinkers rising up against British colonialism, claiming independence and creating the great nation we know today. What most people don’t think of is the fact that no group of people ever has one mindset. Therefore, it would literally have been impossible to mobilize against Britain without mass support.
In the Americas prior to independence, there was a very strict class system that mimicked the British social structure. Governors, aristocrats, gentlemen, ladies, farmers, and peasants were all separate classes. The classes conducted themselves and interacted with each other in very specific ways (Wood, 27). In British society, patriarchy was the most important value that governed the land and the home. As young people in America were growing up away from the crown and the Monarchy became a distant mentality, people of different classes began to intermix (Wood, 149). The older people of the Americas were confused and upset, having firm beliefs in such ‘archaic’ practices of breeding within the same class. When the American Revolution needed to gain support, they latched onto the idea of distancing itself from patriarchy.
John Locke, a respected thinker, “advised parents not to base their authority on fear. (Wood, 150)” He was what communications professionals today would refer to as a spokesperson. His credibility made him the perfect messenger of the new mindset that Britain ruled like a parent with an iron fist and the settlers soon to be known as Americans were tired of it. Young people starting families instantly gravitated to the idea.
The American Revolution is an example of what can be when human perseverance is the involved. There were leaders of the revolution: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. These leaders were supported by admired thinkers and influential persons known as spokespersons: John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry. Public Relations professionals refer to the Boston Tea Party as the biggest, most famous and America’s first ever PR stunt (Wilcox & Cameron, 41). The Boston Massacre was sensationalized to garner support for the Patriot side. When you analytically break down the American Revolution, it was not a magical movement. It was a plan based in marketing strategies that led to the necessary support needed to defeat the British. About two hundred years later in this country was another phenomenal movement for the freedom and equality of all people.
Following the liberation of slaves in the United States was decade after decade of Jim Crow laws, violence and life as second class citizens for blacks in America. Blacks used different facilities, went through different entrances for public places and sat in the back of buses. African-American men were the main targets of the Jim Crow era (Ross, 2). Artifacts, entertainment and legislation “served to justify prejudice and discrimination against African-Americans. (Pilgrim, 1)” African-American men were “depicted as slow talking, childlike servants; wide-eyed, big-lipped buffoons; or subhuman brutes. Black women were portrayed as fat, ugly, desexed, pretend-mothers or near-White, sex-crazed, self-loathing victims. (Pilgrim, 1)” These were more than just stereotypes, they were beliefs. This was exactly how people of other races in American culture viewed blacks in this time period and they treated them accordingly. Much like the British colonial mindset of patriarchy, racism was long-engrained. This is exactly why if social media had existed in 1960, it would not be nearly enough to create a revolution.
It takes much more than a tweet or liking a Facebook page to create a movement. By the 1960’s black-Americans were spread across the country from migrations. Communication amongst the black community was no longer what it used to be. Word did not “just travel” anymore. However, the civil rights movement employed nearly every person of dark skin in the country. There was a small group of people that wanted change—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They were supported by dependable and respected black voices and organizations that countered the previously discussed stereotypes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was well-spoken, intelligent and stable; the women of Delta Sigma Theta were also well-spoken professionals. The next step was to send trained African-Americans to stage demonstrations that would create newsworthy disruption in daily life such as the Greensboro Four sitting at the lunch counter and Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus (Gladwell, 3). These disruptions launched the massive civil rights movement. The demonstrations were all done in close proximity to create a sense of urgency. Other incidents that were racial in nature had been under publicized and far between, making them seem more isolated. The Civil Rights movement began with PR stunts— a small portion of the marketing machine.
Social Networking: Only a Small Portion
Chronologically and formulaically, revolutions were occurring effectively long before the internet was a factor. So why is the media labeling the Arab Spring a ‘social media’ revolution? Is it because Tunisian protestors tweeted about where to meet up? Is it because the April 6th Youth Movement of Egypt had a Facebook page? Waleed Rashed, one of the founders of the April 7th Movement that turned into the Egyptian revolution, the second in the Arab Spring, has a simple and comical explanation.
“People will only report news that benefits them. Americans want to say it is a Facebook revolution because Americans invented Facebook. They want to say we can’t do anything without them. Me, I don’t care, as long as you’re talking about it, you can say it’s whatever movement you want,” he explains with laughter.
On a more serious note, the Egyptian revolution is just as strategic and skillfully planned as the American Revolution and the Civil Rights movement. There was significantly more work going on behind the Facebook page; that was only one small portion of the full strategy. Rashed explains that in order for him and Ahmed Maher to figure out exactly what the problem was, they first had to gather the public’s perceptions on Mubarak. The two came back with the surprising information that many people though Mubarak and his family owned Egypt; that they (the people) were just allowed to live in it. The two knew that they had to change public perception.
Egypt is not a small country and not everyone knows how things are supposed to work so they had to first find a common strand similarity. They knew that the main message was freedom and the first item on the agenda was to explain to people that they had rights! The men did this through talks held with factory works and youth. Knowing that not all Egyptians had access to Facebook, the men knew they had to use Egypt’s strongest word of mouth: “Taxi drivers everywhere are different… in Egypt, the taxi driver won’t stop talking to you all day. He never stops talking,” Rashed explained. Ahmed and Rashed used that to their advantage. Whenever they would get into a taxi, they would call each other and talk about the demonstrations occurring at Tahiri Square, giving each other dates, times and the reason why they would be there. The curious taxi drivers would inquire more, giving the men the opportunity to spread the word. The word got so far that one time when Rashed got into a taxi, the driver turned to him and asked if he’d heard about the April 6th Movement at Tahiri Square. The men’s marketing tactics had worked.
The Egyptian Revolution follows all the strategies that their revolutionary predecessors had set before them: leaders, spokespeople, stunts/ demonstrations, and news coverage that spread their message. While the Egyptian Revolution follows in the steps of mass movements before it, the movement that is rocking the Middle East is being credited to pixels in a virtual world. Perhaps there was truth in Rashed’s joke. Perhaps the reason is even simpler than that.
We’ve grown accustomed to a world that has managed to sever us from each other’s physical presence—a world that devalues interpersonal interaction. Sadly, perhaps we really believe that the internet is the only ability to change the world.
What If There Had Been Facebook
Avid proponents of social media may argue that the American Revolution and the Civil Rights movement are irrelevant examples because the internet did not exist then. Well, let us say that there had been internet in the age of the American Revolution. What if John or Samuel Adams had created a Facebook page where people could read the description of what Americans were fighting for and then ‘like’ the page. They could log in everyday and see the numbers rising for support, but would those all those thumbs up create action or would they just literally show support? Followers can re-tweet everything an organization says about a cause, but in order to make something happen, they have to be able to physically do something about it. This is where the fine line of the role of catalyst comes in.
Beyond creating a source of information, there needs to be a message that people are willing to die for and they have to feel that if they don’t do the best they can, that everything they know can be destroyed. This is what the American Revolution did: the Boston Tea Party was a demonstration to show that America did not need Britain to sustain itself. The Boston Massacre was intended to demonstrate that the British were ruthless and that they were going to and would kill anyone. The Civil Rights movement did the same thing. Rosa Parks was arrested showing people that a tiny, harmless woman cannot go about her day without being attacked. The Greensboro four showed that being educated and politely enjoying a drink could still bring trouble to a black man. Action is what arouses people, not words alone and certainly not social networking. Social network’s function is to keep in contact (Gladwell, 3). Movements do not “keep in contact.” Movements require constant, round the clock organization. In countries such as Egypt where not everyone has a smart phone or internet access, it is malarkey to say that social media was the cause of uprising.
The Egyptian Revolution had to build a new mindset that the country they lived in was their home and that Mubarak was only in a role and anyone who does not do a satisfactory job in a role can be fired. This is what the people latched on to; this is what the people were willing to fight for. They had seen the terror Mubarak had wreaked in his time and with the new revelation that his time was limited, they finally felt that they could be really heard. Social movements require structure, planners and strategy. Facebook and twitter cannot replace those things, “Social media can’t provide what social change has always required. (Gladwell, 1)” Human perseverance goes a long way with strong leadership and marketing. Facebook can only provide a venue through which to make a point, but it can never be the only strategy and it can never take credit for what humans have been doing since we inhabited the planet: changing the world.
Bosket, Bianca. "Google Ranks Top 13 Most Visited Sites On The Web." Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. 25 May 2011. Web. 1 Nov. 2011.
Gladwell, Malcolm. "Small Change Twitter, Facebook, and Social Activism." The New Yorker. 4 Oct. 2010. Web. 8 Oct. 2011.
"One-on-One Behind the Egyptian Revolution." Personal interview. 20 Oct. 2011.
Pilgrim, David. "New Racist Forms: Jim Crow in the 21st Century." Ferris State University: Michigan College Campuses in Big Rapids MI, Grand Rapids MI, Off Campus Locations Across Michigan. Jan. 2001. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.
Ross, Marlon B. Manning the Race Reforming Bla:ck Men in the Jim Crow Era. New York: New York UP, 2004. Print.
Slater, William F. Internet History and Growth. Internet Society. Chicago Chapter of the Internet Society, Sept. 2002. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.
Turkle, Sherry. "4.01: Who Am We?" Wired.com. Conde Nast Publications Inc, 01 Jan. 1996. Web. 6 Sept. 2011.
Wilcox, Dennis L., and Glen T. Cameron. "Chapter 2." Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics. 8th ed. Boston, [Mass.: & B, 2006. Print.
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1992. Print.
X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove, 1965. Print.