Youth Culture, Marketing and Social Media: Essential Ingredients that Changed Egypt

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In a post that now seems surprisingly prescient, I stated on Jan 7 in an entry titled “How Social Media Offers to Help Us Remake Culture in the Real World” that social media at its best enables ”an interactive community of people who all share concerns and interests – and who feel empowered to contibute to the conversation and influence how the world evolves.”

In the entry, I was responding to comments made by blogger and SM-opinionist Douglas Rushkoff on Jan 6 in which he worried that “marketing threatens the true promise of social media.”

How ironic, then, that a Google marketing executive named Wael Ghonim would harness the power of Facebook, Twitter and social media to trigger revolution in Egypt and across the Arab world.

Anatomy of a Revolution: Ghonim’s Use of Smart Marketing Tactics Spreads a Revolution

In its Feb 13 article “The Facebook Freedom Fighter,” Newsweek provides a detailed account of how Ghonim’s actions in 2010 and early 2011 led to revolution on Jan 25 in Tahrir Square. In rough outline, his online marketing efforts break down like this:

  • Spring 2010: Ghonim begins to run the Facebook fan page of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner who had emerged as a key opposition leader
  • Ghonim uses marketing skill to grow the ElBaradei fanbase, through the use of Twitter syndication and YouTube content
  • Ghonim realizes that Facebook is uniquely difficult for Egyptian authorities to thwart:  “Once you are a fan, whatever we publish gets on your wall. So the government has NO way to block it later. Unless they block Facebook completely.”
  • June 2010: Ghonim creates a new Facebook page called “We are all Khalid Said” in response to a vicious beating – and killing - by Egyptian police of local businessman Khalid Said
  • Ghonim runs the Khalid Said page anonymously under the name El Shaheed, or The Martyr – this is a deliberate marketing tactic on Ghonim’s part, not only to protect himself but to create a more powerful “bond” between the site and the people following it
  • Under Ghonim’s management, the Khalid Said page becomes a focal point for posting and sharing videos, pictures and information revealing the attrocities of Egypt’s oppressive police state
  • Ghonim grows the Khalid Said page to 350K+ FB fans
  • Jan 14: Ghonim, inspired by the ouster of Tunisia’s dictator of 23 years President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, invites fans to attend a protest on Jan 25 in Tahrir Square
  • Within 3 days, 50K fans click that “Yes” they will attend the protest
  • Feb 11: After 18 days of protests, Egyptian president Mubarek announces his resignation and leaves the capitol

The rest is history, still playing out in countries including Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia. In all of these places, a heady mix of social media – fueled by on-the-spot reporting from individuals with smartphone cameras – and the audacity of youth culture, threaten to topple governments which have enjoyed decades-long control of the region.

How Important Was Social Media in the Egyptian Uprising?

There are SM-doubters, people who do not give social media credit for helping to fuel the revolution in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Doubters include Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker, who wrote on Feb 2 that “people protected and brought down governments before Facebook was invented” and in Oct that “the revolution will not be tweeted.”

Additional detractors have included Mark Schaefer, whose blog entry stating his agreement with Gladwell went on to list the scores of additional ills which we can all expect as the product of social media on our culture. Schaefer even suggests that SM is “the end of human social skills” as we know them. [Note: Schaefer has retracted his original opinion on SM, given the undeniable facts of events in the Middle East.]

With regards to the events in the Middle East, I think that the case is clear: without Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – without on-the-spot smartphones to capture the reality of brutal repression – without the marketing expertise and audacity of 30-yo Wael Ghonim, then the Egyptian revolution of Jan 2011 does not happen. Social media has influenced how the world has evolved, indeed.

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