A lot of credit is being given to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter for the role they are playing in the uprisings spreading across the Middle East. Long oppressed citizens have flocked to such sites in an effort to organize and promote pro-democracy rallies and protests while bringing the world’s attention to their plight.
The tactic has quite clearly worked: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been chased from Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak from Egypt and other autocrats in the region are fighting to hold on to power, in large part because the people in these countries have the power to connect to each other and the world in ways never before possible. This power was underscored when Egyptian Jamal Ibrahim announced that he had named his newborn daughter “Facebook” in a nod to that particular site’s role in his country’s rebellion.
In the rush to jump aboard the social media bandwagon, however, an important fact is often overlooked: be it in business or the pursuit of democracy, social media are truly only powerful when they can be used to illicit real world action. In countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that means staying away from work, marching in the streets and in some cases dying for the cause.
While we in the West certainly recognize the power inherent in these tools, for the most part we have yet to realize that it is people, not the tools themselves, that actually achieve results and affect change.
An example of such lack of understanding can be found right here at home. Earlier this year the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) proposed a usage-based billing system for internet users, causing a flurry of backlash. Outrage over the proposal could be found all over the web: thousands of Canadians signed online petitions stating their displeasure with the CRTC’s decision; 60,000 people are currently signed up to the Facebook page of OpenMedia.ca, the principal driver behind the anti-usage-based billing campaign; and more than 2,300 Facebook users said they would “attend” a February 4 rally against the decision in Toronto’s Dundas Square.
Despite these numbers of supposed online “support”, few people attended that rally, held in Canada’s most populous city, and there have been no reports of mass cancellations of internet service or any other types of protests against usage-based billing.
This is in stark contrast to the uprisings. They too were organized with tweets and Facebook events, but went beyond the “point and click” activism often found in Western democracies. The protests may have begun online in Tunisia, but they were eventually brought to the streets of Cairo, Manama and Tripoli. Had these people not gotten off their couches and taken real action, the uprisings we’re now watching on CNN would have amounted to nothing more than Twitter stream chatter.
The lesson can be applied to businesses who use social media as well. It’s one thing to engage customers and stakeholders online and to count the number of likes, views and tweets you generate; it is quite another to turn those likes, views and tweets into purchases, donations or event attendance.
Twitter did not overthrow Ben Ali, YouTube did not destroy the regime of Mubarak, and should he be run out of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi won’t be able to blame Facebook. People accomplished these things, not tweets, and the sooner people come to that realization, the sooner the true power of social media will become evident.