Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Looking under the lamp post"

People are hard-wired for convergent behavior. We instinctively imitate, we constantly reset our social norms and we love to feel included. One of the best ways to achieve this feeling of inclusion is to talk about what everyone else is talking about.

When you combine this natural desire to join the conversation with the constant pressure on journalists to come up with an angle for every story, the result is a natural tendency to converge on a standard narrative, particularly if this narrative plays off another hot topic.

Case in point, the recent events in Egypt have been repeatedly described using social networks and references to Facebook, Wikipedia and Twitter. The phrase 'egypt "revolution 2.0"' produces almost ninety thousand results (If you hear the term 'two point oh' to describe non-sarcastically anything other than a new product release, you can be pretty sure the speaker is trying to feel included).

But did revolutionaries friending each other and texting on their cell phones really contribute to the fall of the government? According to this excellent post over at Whimsley (via Thoma, of course), the answer is yes, but not as much as you might think.

The easiest people to talk to

Most obviously, it is much easier to talk to English speaking participants than non-English speakers. English speakers are far more likely to be part of the one-fifth or so of the country that has access to the Internet. (World Bank Development Indicators). And it is easy to contact people over the Internet, so we hear from people who are on the Internet. It is easy to follow Twitter feeds, so we hear Egyptian tweets.

The easiest story to tell

It isn't just the sources, though. The Facebook Revolution narrative is an interesting story to tell to a contemporary Western audience. For us, a story built around the familiar yet novel world of Facebook and social media is an easy way into the Egyptian rebellion. How many of us know much about the specifics of Egypt's history, its recent past, or the economic sources of discontent? It is a much quicker and lighter story to say "look at the Facebook page." We can even go and look at it ourselves (>>). Talking about strikes is more likely to lose an audience.

So every time prominent activist Wael Ghonim is mentioned, he is described as a "Google executive Wael Ghonim" even though he has explicitly said that "Google has nothing to do with this" (>>). Do we hear the employer of any of the other leaders? April 6 Movement founders Asmaa Mahfouz, Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Salah are commonly described as "activists". It is possible to track down Maher's occupation as a "civil engineer", but with no employer. The discrepancy is glaring, and so Google gets to be associated with the uprising, adding to the digital tone of the story.

Underreported players

As people look back for the roots of the rebellion, the April 6 Movement and the We Are Khaled Said Facebook page have received much of the attention. But there are other strands that fed into the protests. The April 6 Movement was created to commemorate an industrial strike, after all, at a textile factory. There have been more than 3,000 separate labour protests in Egypt since 2004 according to a report by the AFL-CIO. The Kefaya movement is considered by some experts to be a central organizer of the January 25 protests, along with Mohamed ElBaradei's organization (two-minute video with Samer Shehata).

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