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Commentary: Next revolution will be on Facebook

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 6, 2011 Much has been made of the protesters' use of social media in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Although social media helped to spread the protesters' message, the true catalyst for change was what sparked successful revolutions in the past, namely the desire to replace repressive political regimes.

What makes social media such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, wikis, and YouTube different from traditional media outlets such as television and radio is that they are more decentralized, less hierarchical and have multiple points of production and utility. All of this simply means that many-to-many media, in contrast to one-to-many, allows everyone who is connected to the Web to broadcast and receive text, images, audio, video and other data from every other person who is connected to the Web.

This unprecedented level of access means that more people than ever before can participate in social change.

There are three factors in explaining why the Arab world was a prime target for technology-fueled revolution this year.

First, technology, of course. Internet penetration grew 450 percent on average over the past decade. Social media use is on the rise across the region as evidenced by a 78 percent rise in Facebook users across the Arab world in 2010, according to the Arab Social Media Report (ASMR).

Second, demographic trends across the region produced a powder keg just awaiting to be lit. Youth between the ages of 15 and 29 constitute nearly a third of the region's population. As everywhere else, this segment of the population is the most tech-savvy and avid users of social media. ASMR estimates an incredible 75 percent of the region's Facebook users is in this demographic.

Finally, social and economic conditions played the critical role. The situation in both countries was ripe for revolutionary activities. Fully 40 percent of Egyptians subsist on just $2 a day. In Tunisia, the protests were driven by the high rate of youth unemployment. College graduates there very often are unable to find anything but menial work.

There have been numerous protests against the regimes before, particularly in Egypt, but this time social media helped fan the flames faster than ever.

Indeed, the revolutions have been years in the making, according to NY Times reporters David D. Kirkpatrick and David E. Sanger. Bloggers, for example, called attention to Mubarak's injustices in Egypt since at least 2008. The Facebook group, April 6 Youth Movement, helped promote a general strike on that day in 2008, which failed but provided organizers with the impetus and means to organize the most recent protests.

Will The Revolution be Tweeted?

Not everyone agrees that social media played a decisive role in the revolts in the Arab world. This is the position taken by the best-selling author, Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell wrote an essay in the October 2010 New Yorker, called "The Revolution will not be Tweeted." In this essay, he points out that, "People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented." The human voice, unaided, was sufficient to topple the French monarchy in 1789, and in 1989, East Germany's communist government fell under pressure from angry crowds even though, at that time, most East Germans did not even own a phone.

On the other side, Clay Shirky and others, claim that social media did "alter the dynamics of the public sphere" in ways that empower ordinary people. Shirky, a writer on the social effects of technology, says in a recent Foreign Affairs piece: "Digital networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech, and to speed and scale of group coordination."

Both Gladwell and Shirky raise excellent points. In the long run, only time will tell whether social media made all the difference or contributed little to the social and political changes roiling the Arab world. In my view, the use of social media has helped bring about the quick changes we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt. It is probably, as Gladwell suggests, likely that both regimes would have fallen anyway, but it might have taken months not weeks. The real question is whether the democratic forces in both countries can use technology to sustain the gains that have been made and install a true e-democracy.

Robert A. Cropf chairs the Department of Public Policy Studies at Saint Louis University.