Although Activist Wael Ghonim coined the term Revolution 2.0 to describe the Egyptian Revolution, it goes without saying that the roots of #Jan25 preceded the advent of social media (Web 2.0). Nevertheless, the importance of social media over the past five years in raising awareness, mobilizing Egyptians and actually coordinating the protests on the streets is undisputable. Perhaps the significance of social media is best established by the Egyptian government’s decision to shut down the Internet on January 27th.
Yet although the importance of Web 2.0 for the Egyptian Revolution is obvious, it appears that Egyptians soon reached the peak of their 2.0 experience and at the same time realized its limits.
Within a month of Mubarak stepping down, the Egyptian constitution was revised and several key articles were modified in order to allow for a democratic transition. For the amendments to be legitimate, they had to be subjected to a national referendum set for March 19th. However, many, especially the core organizers behind #Jan25, contested the concept of merely “revising” a constitution after a revolution, and of course social media became a platform for their debates. A look at Wael Ghonim’s tweets on March 14th captures in a nutshell the status of Revolution 2.0:
Ghonim: Whats interesting about this referendum is that for the 1st time in 50 years we don’t know the final results in advance! #Dostor2011 14 Mar
Ghonim: A screen shot from my Facebook account. Friends changing their photo to Yes / No to referendum 🙂 Campaigns 2.0 http://twitpic.com/49iquk 14 Mar
As Referendum Day approached, Facebook and Twitter users started changing their avatars into either a green ‘Yes’ or a red ‘No’. Yet, the zenith of Revolution 2.0 was, in my opinion, when the very icons of Twitter and Facebook were flipped and rotated so that the ‘t’ and the ‘f’ would resemble the glyph for ‘No’ in Arabic. At this point, the Egyptian Revolution had fully exhausted the resources provided by Web 2.0 after adapting them to its particular needs. Only then was it able to reach for its very icons to convey an authentic expression. The moment the Egyptian Revolution engendered a new meaning to icons with an unambiguous interpretation within the Web 2.0 culture is the peak of Revolution 2.0 and is of enormous significance, namely because it meant the revolution had fully ‘incorporated’ Web 2.0 as a means to serve an authentic end.
Zadie Smith reviewed David Fincher’s film “The Social Network” for the New York Review of Books. It was a spectacular piece because not only did it critique the film, but Facebook in general, and our generation at large. She ended by concluding
“In this sense, The Social Network is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called “Mark Zuckerberg.” It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”
I argue that the moment Egyptians flipped and rotated the Facebook icon to spell the Arabic word for ‘No,’ was the moment they were no longer entrapped in the thoughts of Mark Zuckerberg. Instead, those Egyptians outgrew the minds behind social media and turned the very icons and logos of Web 2.0 into symbols for their own dreams.
Such is the power of importing popular symbols to express a personal meaning. You become One with the culture, yet Independent in your thoughts. The Egyptian Revolution became One with the culture of Web 2.0, yet transcended it and became Independent in its dreams and aspirations.
Although the Egyptian protestor raising a placard with “Egypt” spelled in the logos of Internet Explorer, Google, Yahoo!, PayPal and Twitter signifies the peak of Revolution 2.0, he also expresses its limit. A close examination of the picture, beyond the eye-catching placard, will bring to attention his winter gloves. This picture was not taken in Tahrir, but in Toronto. The majority of Egyptians living in Egypt however are offline without even an email account, let alone one on Facebook or Twitter. In fact, half the population can’t even read or write their own names. Welcome to Egypt 0.5.
Reflecting on the referendum results (less than 25% voted ‘No’), online activists began reciting the mantra “Egypt is not Facebook, Egypt is not Twitter” to reinforce the paradigm shift needed for the next phase. With that came a renewed interest in grass roots organizing, this time not for popular dissent, but rather for political and social development. The creative innovations to facilitate an interface between Web 2.0 and Egypt 0.5 are bound to set the tone for the future of the Internet in the Arab world.