Egyptian Activists Understood Key to Social Media: It's the 'Social'

Mona Seif on How Tweeting About Cats Can Later Engage People in Geopolitics

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
If you wish to understand social media, you could do worse than listening to Mona Seif.

She doesn't have some new sentiment-analysis app. She doesn't consult on finding influencers. She doesn't claim to know the secrets of viral earned media. And I'm pretty sure she isn't on a panel at SXSW. All she's done is put her life, and the future of her country, in the hands of the internet. Mona Seif is a democracy protester in Cairo. Over the past three weeks -- with her cellphone, with her Twitter account, with her Facebook social graph -- she mobilized compatriots and informed the world about peaceful revolution in Egypt.

Jan. 29: Announcing a general strike starting tomorrow#Jan25

Feb. 1: I want my internet back! #Jan25

Feb. 9: clashes bt ppl & police in Kharga new valley, police opened fire, 3 dead & over 100 injured #Jan25

Mona and I spoke on Feb. 3. I was in the studios of WNYC for "On the Media." She was in Tahrir Square, with about 150,000 of her closest friends. As we spoke, violence had flared. The Hosni Mubarak government had methodically begun to turn the screws.

"Today they were trying different ways of weakening us and undermining us," Mona told me, all but shouting into the mobile against the revolutionary din. "They harassed any protesters trying to join us or to bring us food or medical supplies. They also cracked down on most of our legal support. They have arrested them. One of them is my dad."

The government was taken by surprise -- and so was ours -- but not because they had no warning. The Jan. 25 Day of Rage was planned and publicized online in advance to correspond to the state's Police Day, a national holiday in honor of the precise corrupt and repressive security apparatus the people so despised.

"The ongoing joke on the internet then was how you cannot set an event on Facebook saying, 'OK, prepare yourself, revolution is next week.' But it turns out that, yes, apparently, in Egypt you can."

History will record that social media played an important role in the Egyptian uprising, and other popular protests from Moldova to Tunisia to the Philippines -- not to mention the foment now taking place in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. Some, notably scholar Evgeni Morozov, contend that technology's role has been exaggerated, compared to Al Jazeera and the political conditions themselves.

Mona Seif herself emphasizes that "it became a big movement. It was going to go on no matter what are the available methods of communication." But she also shared a remarkable insight. I had mentioned that Tahrir Square was a rather eloquent answer to those who dismiss Twitter as a tool of the self-indulgent blathering 140 characters at a time about the trivia of their lives. Mona didn't bite.

"Yeah. I understand this criticism, because I've been getting it a lot from my friends," she said, but the whole point is that "engaging different people in bits of your life is really what makes it a powerful tool."

"Usually I use Twitter for really personal things, so I just share moments from my work or moments from my love life or I talk about my cats or my family. And it engages lots of different people, so when these people are following you and suddenly you are talking about a torture case, some of them might not usually be exposed to such cases. But because they are following me and there is an ongoing conversation between us, they would suddenly be engaged in this, as well."

So many marketers and other institutions believe that social media is just one maddeningly inefficient channel for selling their goods, services, politics or whatever. They see only the word "media" and ignore the word "social." You cannot understand these technologies, much less exploit them, if you do not first understand and internalize the idea that they are not about messaging; they are about relationships. Until you have established one, nobody much cares what you say. And you will never, ever be able to send a Tweet like this:

Feb. 11: we got rid of Mubarak! Egypt won! #Jan25

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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