The first Internet revolution?

Much virtual and real ink has been spent in the last few days to talk about the role of social media in the Tunisian and Egyptian popular revolts, some more informed, and some making rather grandiose  exaggerated claims. One thing is true, while it is impossible to quantify the impact of the Internet on the popular movements, it cannot be denied that the Internet has indeed have had an important role in helping to mobilise and organise protesters.

At the very start of the chain of events that have led us to the eventual downfall of Mubarak in Egypt, one cannot deny that the Internet has been central to the events. While the Tunisian uprising was the result of local conditions, and of a population fed up with years of corruption, it cannot be denied that the Wikileaks cables depicting the corruption served as a catalyst that probably sped-up the process. Anger at the corroboration that the Tunisian regime was corrupt ignited the revolution in that country.

After Tunisia, the air of popular entitlement spread throughout the region, and Egypt came next. It seems evident now that a lot of the discontent was led by communication through social networks, particularly Facebook and blogs, and this served as yet another catalyst that helped to build momentum towards popular discontent and the level of chaos that we see today in our TV screens. Corroboration of this came by the unprecedented fact that the Egyptian government managed to unplug the entire country from the Internet. This article by Andrew McLaughlin in The Guardian explains the implications of such an event really well.

I will not go as far as to state that this is a revolution that could not have happened without the Internet, but if we must learn anything from the last few days, is that the power of social media to organise and communicate people can no longer be denied. Networks operate based on connections and links, and one thing that the Internet does really well is to shorten the intervening links between people. Put enough people together in a Facebook page, and things might happen.

The other lesson to be learned from the last few weeks is an argument that I have been doing for a while, and it is that while we like to think of the Internet as a distributed and resilient network, in reality it relies on very central nodes that act as choke-points downstream. The disconnection of the Egyptian Internet proves this level of centrality can be misused by governments, as was the case in Egypt. Just pull the switch. This has important implications for future popular engagement, we currently take the Internet for granted, but we must always remember that in some instances someone is holding a switch; this was a lesson we also learned from the Amazon Wikipedia debacle. Not only governments are willing to turn services off.