Egypt: The ‘Wikipedia’ revolution

While many news headlines have described the #jan25 movement in Egypt as a Facebook or Twitter revolution – conflating platform with substance –  the organisation of the protests bore more similarities to Wikipedia, according to Wael Ghonim.

@ghonim, as he is perhaps more widely known, is the former Google engineer whose role as an activist and subsequent detention by security forces had a galvanising effect on the revolution. Speaking at a Thomson Reuters Foundation event last night, Ghonim said the leaderless movement was like the online collaborative encyclopaedia: “you didn’t know who the author was, but you appreciated the content.”

His book about events in Egypt and his own experiences of arrest and detention will have “Revolution 2.0” in the title. But the 2.0 has less to do with technology – it refers to the collaborative nature of the protests, with “everyone trying to do as much as they can to influence the movement”.

Much has been written about the influence of FB and Twitter on the Egyptian uprising – with varying opinions placing varying degrees of importance on these technology platforms, alongside email and text messages – but listening to the assembled panellists last night it was very clear that lessons from tech and the web were almost more important than the tools being used: openness, collaboration, transparency, giving voice to the voiceless, early adopters or activists spreading means and method to the popular.

As we moved to the streets the power of the internet became less and less important. The internet became a tool of reporting what was happening. The role [of the internet] for mobilising people became less and less important.

Not everyone protesting had access to Facebook or were versed in the ways of dissidence, but were being compelled to join the movement, brought out of the silent sides, Ghonim’s fellow panellists Sally Moore and Ahmed Naguib explained.

The web was helping to build networks and teach people a language and means of protest that could challenge the discourse of the old regime – a language and psychology that the military council is still using says Naguib. While Moore gave examples of the old regime’s attempts to use online media to spread misinformation and divide the protesters; Ghonim and Naguib’s comments suggested that new media had contributed principles to the movement’s way of working to help combat this and help those new to protesting and campaigning to learn quickly.

The event also looked at the role of women in the protests, the growth of multiple coalition groups after the fall of Mubarak and how this seemingly fractured landscape will fare as a new democracy is forged. You can catch up with much of this via #trflive and via the website for the event.

(One final point that caught my attention came from an Egyptian journalist in the audience, who asked if the international media’s focus on technology in this revolution had distracted oppression the historical oppression of bloggers and online journalists that had existed long before the uprising under Mubarak?)

Thanks to all involved for a great event.