By Hazel Weiser.
My twentysomething year old daughter accuses me of “Facebook” stalking, because she set up the SALT Facebook page, giving me access to hers. Browsing, not stalking, I see how young Americans use Facebook: to connect with people they don’t have time to communicate with daily about stuff that really doesn’t matter; to amass lots of “friends” so that they don’t feel lonely; and to document their lives like the Kardashians by posting humiliating photographs after every party and shared meal.
Seeing Facebook used like this seems like a waste of time, and perhaps the reason why the United States is not recovering fast enough from the 2008 crash, because so many of us are on Facebook for too much time every day.
That’s not how Egyptians see Facebook. It’s not how any totalitarian regime will ever see Facebook again.
Wael Ghonim is the head of marketing for Google Middle East, and his resume, which you can find here, reflects his generation’s understanding of social media. Obviously Hosni Mubarak didn’t, not at first. Ghonim launched the Facebook page that first “galvanized the protesters,” as Brooke Gladstone put it last weekend during her On the Media interview. Ghonim was arrested and detained by Egyptian authorities for 12 days during the demonstrations, held blindfolded, the entire time. Between Facebook, Twitter, and cell phones, the young protesters in Egypt were able to organize their supporters. Al Jazeera showed the world, but more importantly, the residents of Egypt and the Middle East that there were indeed protests, what the protesters looked like, and that no matter how much Al Ahram, the leading government newspaper in Cairo, denied it, young people, lawyers, workers, and students were revolting against thirty years of oppression. You know what happened.
The use of social media to organize protests to overthrow dictators in totalitarian countries was not anticipated by Mark Zuckerberg when he and his Harvard friends Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes developed The Facebook. According to Ben Mezrich in Accidental Billionaires, Facebook was devised to facilitate dating by putting on line the information that the Harvard “facebook” still had only in print. Whereas in the United States, Facebook is a way to find old classmates and boyfriends (my cousin is dating an old friend from high school found through a Facebook search), its uses abroad show its potential. And it’s scary anti-civil liberties side.
According to the “theory of the retarding lead,” advanced societies can’t take full advantage of innovation because the apparatus of culture is too complicated to respond. Take the cell phone, for example. Land line telephone service began with wires strung from trees, then telephone poles, and most of Africa, India, and China, because of their geographic size and lack of resources, could not afford to string wire on trees across those distances to provide service. Communications satellites and fiber optics made all of those telephone poles obsolete, so that cell phones took off in these nations at far greater speeds. In America, a cell phone was a luxury, merely augmenting land lines. In rural India, cell phones provided opportunities for commerce: to skip middle men, sell direct, and even make money by renting cell phone time to neighbors. Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammed Yunus won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for financing this innovation. Cell phones changed the economy, not by transmitting cute YouTube videos of puppies dressed up as kittens, but because people could make more money and exit the $1 a day statistic of poverty.
So at a time when Sarah Palin has hired Rebecca Mansour to Twitter for her, and “celebrities” gather fans by revealing their immediate thoughts about anything and everything, no matter how inconsequential, the real focus should be on the political potential of Facebook, not just as an organizer, but as a repository of enormous amounts of private data about 500 million subscribers. According to Facebook’s own statistics, 50% of active users log onto Facebook daily. 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States, and Facebook users spend 700 billion minutes a month on the site!
More ominous, however, is this statistic: 200 million active Facebook subscribers access the site through their mobile phones, many of which have GPS tracking on them.
In the wrong hands, imagine how a government might round up people with GPS tracking, with all of their social interconnections organized neatly in the “friends” and “followers” categories!
In the world of Egypt, Yemen, Iran, and Bahrain, will this be enough?