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Is the Social Web Less Surprising? The Internet of People and Social Flâneurism

As I read this essay on “The Death of the Cyberflâneur” by Evgeny Morozov who argues that the Internet lost its early quality of leisurely strolling and encountering the unexpected, I kept thinking about how this did not fit my experience. While there are many parts to Morozov’s essay –some of which I am not going to discuss here at all– I want to focus on the idea of “wandering around” the Web and encountering the unplanned in light of the emergence of the “social web”. For me, the social web has greatly increased exactly this quality of the Internet –encountering the unsearched and the unplanned– and I don’t believe this is because I am exceptional but rather it is because connectivity through people –the social web– yields more diverse and surprising encounters than mere connectivity through topics or information-the early Internet.

To go back to Morozov’s essay: there are two parts to his claim why the Internet is less about the aimless encounter: first is empirical, and the second is structural. Here’s the empirical argument:

Something similar has happened to the Internet. Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore. The popularity of the “app paradigm,” whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely.

First let’s get some numbers out of the way. Is it true that “hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore”? In a recent (December 2011) and nationally representative survey, Pew Internet found that 74% of all online adults answered “yes” to the question if they do go online for “no particular reason except to have fun or to pass the time.” I don’t think this is blip. In my 2010 surveys with college students a whopping 77.9% said “very often” when asked how often they went online “for no reason at all”—and I’ve probed this question many times since 2005 and I have similar numbers for all the years.

I’ve asked Evgeny Morozov about his data and he pointed to a Microsoft advertisement survey—the survey had scant public information but actually shows a 4% increase in amount of surfing from 2007 to 2010; and surfing remains the second most popular activity after email. Morozov also referred to the famous Wired article which argued that the “The Web is Dead.” I’m sympathetic to the argument in the Wired if interpreted structurally: that the Web is being taken over by “walled gardens” like Facebook and single-purpose apps. Data-wise, though, the Wired piece does not speak to this argument of encountering the unexpected or wandering around (it’s comparing peer-to-peer and video traffic to “Web” traffic, for example). (Also, see this critique.)

So, let me consider structural argument which I find a lot more interesting. Here it is in a nutshell:

As the popular technology blogger Robert Scoble explained in a recent post defending frictionless sharing, “The new world is you just open up Facebook and everything you care about will be streaming down the screen.”

This is the very stance that is killing cyberflânerie: the whole point of the flâneur’s wanderings is that he does not know what he cares about. … Compared with Facebook’s highly deterministic universe, even Microsoft’s unimaginative slogan from the 1990s — “Where do you want to go today?” — sounds excitingly subversive. Who asks that silly question in the age of Facebook?

I have to say that at face value, this is an attractive argument, and one that has been echoed by others: the “filter bubble” or the “daily me”—and indeed raises deep questions about how to design for serendipity:to find not merely what we are looking for, but to wander and to stumble upon things a la the flâneur, to encounter the unexpected, to savor the surprise.

However, in my personal experience, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have greatly increased the amount of unplanned and interesting information I encounter exactly because they are person-to-person spaces rather than information-spaces. Online, I interact with people with whom I share at least one strong interest–but thanks to the social Internet, I am not exposed to just that limited topic but the much wider universe of what my friends share. And this is always much broader than the narrower affinity that first connected me with that particular person.

The trick to understanding this effect is to understand that people’s affinities don’t lump neatly, nor do they ever overlap completely. In other words, we are, fortunately, not clones of each other. Stereotypes work as broad generalizations at the aggregate, statistical level but break down spectacularly at the individual level: show me a stereotypical “X”, and I’ll show you traits he/she does not share with other stereotypical “X”s.

For example, I have strong interests in social impacts of technology, human rights and democracy and the Middle East–and often make friends based on that basis. However, I have other strong interests which do not fit into any of those categories—and, crucially, so do my friends. Social media thus exposes me to other interests of my friends, and exposes my friends to other interests of mine—and I am surprised everyday by the richness and diversity of these encounters. A friend I met because of shared interest in the emergence of the Internet and the Middle East may pleasantly introduce me to a music genre I dabbled in but never had the time and expertise to dive into. From another, I encounter the intricacies of representing light on metallic surfaces on oil paintings. Somebody shares an article on how bilingualism changes the brain.  Baby pictures, sunsets and cat videos, of course, also pass through my stream.  But along musings on nature parks in Latin America. There is a new restaurant in town—well, in a town I’ve never been to. It goes on and on and on in a great deal of richness, diversity and complexity.

In fact, encountering things I did not explicitly care about happens to me significantly more than the days I had to click-click-click my way around “cyberspace” because as much as I thought I wandered around, I could never wander around within the richness and depth of my encounters through the social web.

At this point, you might say that I have interesting friends and that is an anomaly. Perhaps, but that is not the point. The point is that I have friends who are not clones of me but have enough similarity with me that they introduce me to topics that I did not know I was interested in, but may plausibly be, if it just popped in front of me. This is likely true for most people for structural reasons.

Crucially, my online encounters introduce me to spaces that are both adjacent to (interests of people somewhat like me) but also far (not my interests) from me.  In the old days of seeking by information, I was more likely to encounter only information I was seeking (Duh) but not manage to get too far unless I truly started clicking randomly–but how do you do that? Search for “random”?  In the new era of connecting to people, I am exposed to a lot more because “people” are a lot broader than “categories of information” which are, by definition, narrow.

To put an empirical point on this, look at this striking finding from the latest February 2012 Pew survey.

It is commonly the case in people’s offline social networks that a friend of a friend is your friend, too. But on Facebook this is the exception, not the rule. A fully connected list of friends on Facebook would have a density of 1 (everyone knows everyone else). The average Facebook user in our sample had a friends list that is sparsely connected. As an example, if you were the average Facebook user from our sample with 245 friends, there are 29,890 possible friendship ties among those in your network. For the average user with 245 friends, 12% of the maximum 29,890 friendship linkages exist between friends.

For those of us familiar with research on this topic, this number, 12%, is very striking. Most of the time, it is fairly safe to assume that a person’s friends form “close triads”—people you know also know each other–and this creates a structure that looks like a triangle: everyone is connected to everyone else. What this 12%  number is saying is that on Facebook, your Facebook friends are almost never friends with each other, i.e. rather than triangles, they form “open triads”. People in closed triads tend to be more similar each other either due to origins of the connection  (living in the same environment) or due to convergent homophily (people exposing/converting each other through multiple encounters over time).


Finally, here’s the best empirical finding on this topic: Look at this striking study of 250 million people on Facebook [in a true experiment, no less] by Eytan Basky explained here:

Although we’re more likely to share information from our close friends, we still share stuff from our weak ties—and the links from those weak ties are the most novel links on the network. Those links from our weak ties, that is, are most likely to point to information that you would not have shared if you hadn’t seen it on Facebook. The links from your close ties, meanwhile, more likely contain information you would have seen elsewhere if a friend hadn’t posted it.

In other words, platforms like Facebook connect you with people who connect you with information you simply would not have encountered yourself—and these connections happen especially through your weaker ties who, structurally speaking, are more likely to be in open triads with your other friends, i.e not friends of your their friends.  I suspect this may be even truer for Twitter.

I don’t deny there is something to the argument that the shift to walled gardens comes with particular threats, but I disagree that the shift to the social Internet kills diversity, surprise, or richness. An Internet that is collection of sites which brings together, say, “people interested in model airplanes to talk about model airplanes” is going to be a lot less likely to expose us to the unexpected than the social Internet which connects us to people in their fuller richness.

It is not the Internet of things, or Internet of information, which keeps the Web brimming with the unexpected: it’s the Internet of people. Sometimes nothing is a more surprising and complex bundle of the unexpected as another human being.

Why Twitter’s new policy is helpful for free-speech advocates

I know many people are upset with Twitter’s announcement that it will now be able to block tweets country by country. There has been a lot of excellent writing / reporting on the content explaining that this is not as bad as it looks. (Check out good posts by my friend Jillian York here or Alex Howard here). My initial reaction upon a cursory reading of the announcement was also that it wasn’t too bad, given the alternatives. However I’ve since looked at the policy in more detail and my conclusion is that this isn’t a mediocre but acceptable policy; rather, this is an excellent policy which will be helpful to free-speech advocates.

I often criticize companies on this blog so I want to take a moment to recognize Twitter for a model policy and explain why these should be the kind of practices that I hope other Internet companies follow.

In my opinion, with this policy, Twitter is fighting to protect free speech on Twitter as best it possibly can. (It also fits with its business model so I am not going to argue they are uniquely angelic, but Twitter does have a good track record. Twitter was the only company which first fought the US government to protect user information in the Wikileaks case and then informed the users when it lost the fight. In fact, Twitter’s transparency is the only reason we even know of this; other companies, it appears, silently caved and complied.)

Twitter’s latest policy is purposefully designed to allow Twitter to exist as a platform as broadly as possible while making it as hard as possible for governments to censor content, either tweet by tweet or more, all the while giving free-speech advocates a lot of tools to fight censorship.

Let’s look at the policy.

1-      The policy is narrower than before. Previously, when Twitter would take down content when forced to do so by a court order, it would disappear globally. Now, it will only be gone in the specific country in which the court order is applicable. This is a great improvement. [Edited to add: And this is still what usually happens at Facebook and Google–the content is gone globally.]

2-      The policy is realistic–and non-realistic policies are not better as they won’t work. The idea that Twitter can just ignore court orders everywhere is not only unrealistic, it would result in more countries to try to block Twitter completely–or make it accessible only via proxies and thus greatly restrict its power. The Internet is not a “virtual” space, and cyberspace is not a planet which can float above all jurisdictions forever. In this move, Twitter is acknowledging this fact while complying within the bare minimum framework.

3-      The policy is transparent. Blocked tweets will be shown as “blocked” along with the blocking country. This is excellent! This level of transparency should be the model for all Internet companies. Companies should not remove content globally; rather they should do so in as few jurisdictions as possible with as much notice as possible. (for a negative example, check out the story of how Blogger is censoring Egyptian activist Ramy Raoof’s post on brutality by security forces in Egypt. In that case, Ramy’s content is blocked globally and the post just *disappeared* without a clear indication of the censorship).

4-      The policy provides tools for free-speech advocates. Twitter will publish list of blocked tweets, along with links to the original tweet –so everyone who is not at that particular country can see what it’s about–as well as a copy of the court order or enforceable takedown notice at Free-speech advocates have a transparent and powerful tool.

5-      The policy is not made such that it’s hard to circumvent. Twitter helpfully included instructions on how to change your country (i.e. “manually override” the country setting which is ordinarily determined by IP). I don’t know about you, but does this sound like Twitter is caving? Also, obviously, Tor, VPN and other proxy users will be able to access the content fairly easily.

6-      Twitter spokespeople have repeatedly said they will only block content in “In the face of a valid and applicable legal order.” This is a good standard and I don’t think any company can get around this in jurisdictions where they have physical presence; nor is it clear that they should. Of course, we all need to be watching carefully to ensure that they do so and not just cooperate with governments based on “requests.”

I suspect this policy will cause some governments to continue to block Twitter on the whole because it doesn’t make it easy for governments to block content (they have to at least follow some level of procedure) and it creates a “Streisand effect” on censored tweets

Twitter can’t fight all free speech battles by itself; and it can’t change laws or governments around the world, nor can it ignore issues of jurisdiction. In particular, if faced with a court order that requires Twitter to identify dissidents in a country where torture or severe repression is in place, I hope Twitter first makes this as public as possible, and then choses to pull out of that country rather than comply (as Yahoo did in the shameful case of Wang Xiaoning and others in China – and some these people remain in prison after almost a decade).

There is a lot more to be said about the dangers of centralization, the emergence of corporate platforms as larger and larger portions of our political and social commons, and the conflicts between control, profit motives, and free and civic speech these recent developments raise. I don’t want to sound like I am happy to trust a few corporations and that’s it. On the contrary, I’ve repeatedly tried to warn against these dangers. All that said, I don’t think it is helpful if we don’t recognize a good policy when we see one.

In this particular policy, Twitter has done everything it can do to help free-speech advocates around the world except deliver coffee and bagels in the morning.  This is a model of how Internet companies should behave.  I hope Twitter practices this policy as it outlined, and practices maximum transparency and minimum compliance with restrictive laws.

Journalism, Social Media and Packs & Cascades: Lessons from an Error

Journalists won’t admit this often, but they tend to be pack animals. I got my first sense of this while hanging out with foreign correspondents and journalists in Turkey–and I later worked with international news organizations as a local organizer and translator. All the journalists, and all their camerapersons, and all their crew, and even their local workers seemed to not only know each other very well, they were almost always together. You could literally spot them from a distance as a large mass of people with their gear, lights and correspondents fixing their hair before going on the air.

Staying in the same hotel. Hanging out in the same bar. Attending the same press conference. Going to the same event. Taking the same picture from near-identical angle.

Packs often made their decisions collectively as well.  While I was in Diyarbakir, Turkey, for example, with one of those large packs covering ongoing unrest Northern Iraq, we were told that the roads were unsafe and travel was not possible via the usual routes. The journalists pushed and prodded and looked for alternative ways—but, in the end, “the pack” gave up and settled into an uneasy wait, eating kebabs and watermelon in the lovely “Kervansaray” hotel we were all staying in. (Yes, journalists also all stay in the same hotel because there is often only one reasonable hotel in an area).

Some, though, abandoned the pack. Christian Amanpour, for example, took off in the middle of the night through a circuitous mountain route. And I know she made it because I ran into her about a week later at the border when she approached me out of the blue and said, “Hey, are you Zeynep?” Yes, I said, and I ventured a guess that I just woke up in an alternate universe where I was the notorious one instead of her.  Truth was, a producer I was working with had asked her to look for me to deliver a message–and there weren’t that many petite brunette women hanging out at the border in what was then a serious conflict region. My alternate universe was deflated but she was indeed in an alternate universe than my pack as she had been in Northern Iraq the past few days while we waited.

This awareness that traditional journalism is often poorly-sourced, and what appears as many reports is actually a single report,  is partly why I was encouraged by the explosion of citizen journalism enabled through social media. News outside the pack, I thought. Many, many, many sources of news instead of the eyes of a united pack.

I understand why journalists stay in those packs—they are often navigating their own way around unchartered territory, worried about safety, and also worried about being scooped. If everyone has the same story, more or less, things are okay, more or less, professionally.

But it certainly results in poorer, thinner news. With shrinking number of foreign correspondents, and with too few correspondents covering too many countries (too big a beat – how can one person cover all of Middle East?), and too little time in any one country, it just makes sense to stick together.

However, journalism isn’t just about multiple sourcing. Journalism also isn’t only about knowing the area one is covering, but it is also about knowing the audience one is communicating with, knowing how to evaluate and bring facts together, and knowing how to evaluate and tell a story to that particular audience. It’s a two-way street with competencies required on both sides of the equation, both compiling and presenting the news.

Hence, we still need journalists who can stand between the multitudes of citizen journalists and news sources to apply the craft of journalism to produce the best stories: to construct narratives, to evaluate news and rumors, and finds ways to most effectively communicate with the audiences.

One such journalist  to emerge in the last year’s events has been NPR’s Andy Carvin who’s been “anchoring” a Middle East based newsfeed on Twitter since December of last year when the Tunisian uprising began. His timeline  has emerged as an “oral history”, a curated story, and an important source of on-the-ground news from the uprisings sweeping the region. Another example is Robert Mackey who writes “The Lede” blog for the New York Times and often covers very important stories.

However, there has also been backlash and rejection of this kind of journalism. The criticisms are not invalid and should not just be dismissed as old-fashioned. While many accept that it is useful, a common issue which comes up is: “how do you know what you hear on social media is true?” I think that is an important question and one that requires a lot of thought and study and expansion of the craft of journalism.

Here, I want to examine some aspects of that question to highlight a key difference between traditional journalism (and its shortcomings) and social-media-based journalism (and its shortcomings).

My case study begins yesterday when the prominent Egyptian newspaper Shorouk posted an article stating that prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd-el Fattah, whose case was recently transferred from military to civilian courts as a result of pressure from Tahrir and elsewhere, was now charged with premeditated murder, among other charges, for his activities the night of the Maspero killings in Egypt which resulted in the death of 27 Copts during a protest march. Alaa is well-known by many people in the West (including Andy Carvin and myself) and the charges were fairly ridiculous even before premeditated murder were added. Alaa is a lifelong activist and blogger and he had written extensively about his efforts that night in question and it seems pretty clear that his effort was all about documenting the killings–and the idea that he’d be out there with guns killing people was quiet shocking, pretty impossible to believe, and also a potential capital offense—putting the life of one of Egypt’s best thinkers and democracy activists on the line.

It starts with this:



Just as Andy Carvin started asking around for confirmation on this story, Al Jazeera English posted an item reporting the same story on its story. However, that too, was based on reaction to the Shorouk piece and did not have independent confirmation.


I was not yet paying attention to this story at the moment but soon after, a key development, as far as I can tell, occurred, through Mona Seif, Alaa’s sister who also leads a campaign against military trials and is thus quite knowledgeable about the court system:


Soon after I saw Andy Carvin’s reporting *and* his exchange with Alaa’s  sister, the Shorouk article was translated verbatim. The statement was very clear and it appeared that the charges now included premeditated murder. Alarmed by the statements from Alaa’s sister, I sent out tweets stating this news. While there was heated discussion of this issue, more Egyptian news organizations jumped on this topic, reporting the same news:

Ahram Online:


Bikya Masr:



However, it soon started emerging that maybe Al Shorouk had it wrong. Another twitter user and physician Mostafa Hussein posted the audio of Alaa’s lawyer explaining the charges, and twitter user and AUC professor Rasha Abdulla reached the lawyer by the phone.


As a result of the efforts of these two citizen journalists, it soon became clear that the charges likely included no new charges and that Shorouk likely got the story wrong:


(Although later that night, Alaa’s sister posted this answer to me which seemed to suggest there might be “group charges” including Alaa, although Alaa’s wife @manal, seemed to think not). In the end, though, it seems that the correct story is that there are no new charges, and the process is just convoluted and confusing for many.

The full story of how it played out can be seen in this Storify by Andy Carvin.


This case is very informative in identifying weaknesses and strengths of social-media based journalism. Let’s look at how it works best and how it fails, as it did in this case.

1-      Triangulation needs to be more explicit and cautious. The strength of social-media based journalism lies in its ability to deviate from the “pack” behavior, which as I explained often necessarily dominates traditional news reporting. (To be clear, I am not just blaming traditional journalists; this is a structural issue. Too few journalists are covering too varied stories and this forces them to stick together to well-beaten paths).

However, as we saw in this story, online cascades can also be a kind of pack behavior as well. Al Shorouk got echoed by Al Jazeera which got echoed by Andy Carvin, which got echoed by even more news outlets, which got echoed by many of us. Hence, when triangulating, it is important to make sure that it is not an echo chamber but genuine multiple reporting – and that can really be best done by incorporating more citizen journalism as well as more professional journalists into the mix.

2-      Evaluating personal confirmation at cross-cultural, cross-linguistic transition point remains the weakest inflection point. In this case, I was aware that Al Jazeera’s reporting was not independent; however, Alaa’s sister seeming to confirm the case was a clincher for me. It turns out to have been a possible misunderstanding.

Thus, when communicating with people in different cultural/linguistic settings over social media, there needs to be better ways of evaluating the information and also being more explicit about needing more sources. Traditional journalism doesn’t always do that well in this regard either, but the process is more opaque and less visible (good journalists, however, are the ones who do this well). The visibility of the process in social media-based journalism makes it more open to criticism about errors, which are also more visible. This transparency should be seen as a moment for improvement, not for returning back to the days of more opaque, unclear paths.

This is a potential moment to address one of the biggest weaknesses in foreign-news journalism, that journalists are not part of the story they are writing and are, almost by definition, lacking in understanding of the context, by combining it with traditional journalism’s greatest strength over citizen journalism, that journalists are not part of the story they are writing, and thus are in a position to better evaluate multiple points of view and  news with careful verification and a skeptical eye.

Whether citizen or professional-journalism based, the greatest threat to developing a factual, contextual narrative across borders and cultures occurs at that inflection point when news, information and viewpoints are being transferred from one country/person to another country/person, especially through a language barrier. (Yes, I’d love to see more Arabic speaking American journalists who specialize in covering Egypt, for example.)  Social-media based journalism makes that point much more visible and scrutinizable. Such scrutiny should be welcome and stronger methods developed.

3-      Traditional journalism is one more source (often a good, but not perfect one): Too often, many of us treat traditional journalism as infallible even though we know better. For example, many people got taken in by fake blogger “Amina” because the Guardian published an interview with “her” with a Damascus byline – without failing to mention that it was not an interview in person; rather it was conducted over email. Traditional news organizations should be treated as important but not infallible sources of news, especially when reporting about social-media based reports as some their reporters may be lacking key skills in operating in this new medium. (It is not a coincidence that Amina was unmasked firstby Ali Abunimah and Andy Carvin and Liz Henry, all of whom are experienced in evaluating social media information, and not traditional news organizations.)

4-      Process Journalism vs. Product Journalism.  The key difference between a traditional news organizations and social-media reinforced journalism is often in the visibility of the process versus the presentation of a final product.

One reason that social-media journalism comes under fire more often is that the process is more transparent, and necessarily includes more explicit errors, which are almost always corrected rather quickly, but through a messier process. While traditional journalism, too, admits their errors, the news is presented as a product, not a process. Hence, when New York Times made egregious errors in the reporting of the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, errors it was challenged on *at the time* as it was making them by many experts and other news organizations but which the Times ignored, the consequences can be devastating as many other news organizations take the lead of New York Times and also because many people trust it.

While these errors were corrected many years later, and the New York Times issues a lengthy apology, the war was done and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost or destroyed. Errors in social media, however, tend to get corrected much more visibly and quickly as the challenge itself is more visible and apparent. Hence, it’s just not the case that product journalism, which presents products in an infallible-seeming manner is always the best journalism. Integration of visibility into the process (less reporting about what “senior unnamed sources leaked” for example, as that is an obscuration and should be done very, very judiciously rather than as a routine process) and more explicit integration of factual challenges would improve all journalism.

However, process journalism has significant issues as well:

5-      Process journalism is more demanding from the audience. Even long after correct information about Alaa’s charges came out, tweets replicating the earlier, incorrect information were reverberating through social media. There is a two-fold problem here, one which replicates problems with traditional journalism and one which goes beyond it.

First, in traditional journalism, too, corrections are seen by fewer people than those who see the original incorrect information. However, in social-media based journalism, since the process is more transparent, there are bound to be more error-corrections. At the moment social-media based journalism requires great effort and attention to follow.

For example, the number of people who retweet an original tweet are often far greater than the number who will retweet a correction. Considering that a tweet may then be re-re-retweeted through a network, it becomes hard, if not impossible, to ensure a correction reaches all those it should. (In the Turkish press code, which is hardly exemplary in other respects, court-ordered corrections have to be issued *in the same place with the same font* as the original story. That should be true for all corrections whether in traditional or social-media based journalism but how to achieve that remains elusive).

In other words, while many people may just want to eat the sausage, social-media requires that not only one watch sausage being made, one watch very carefully. That is not a reasonable expectation if a more democratic, wider and correct information diffusion is a goal as systems requiring more effort almost always increase inequalities. The rich –those with attention, time and know-how– will likely get richer while others will be left behind confused.

Yes, we need more people to understand better how the sausage is made, and sometimes watch how it is made, it is not reasonable or a positive contribution to the public sphere if only the people who have the time, attention and resources to watch and understand the whole process are able to enjoy its fruits.

Some suggestions:

So, should we give up on social-media based journalism because it is messier and more demanding? On the contrary, as I argued, it provides us with a important resource to address some of the shortcomings of traditional reporting. I propose three avenues to explore:

1-      Journalists like Robert Mackey, Andy Carvin and others who straddle worlds of social-media generated citizen journalism and traditional journalism are key to ensuring that this emerging resource is made accessible. Often, Mackey’s “The Lede” blog and Carvin’s feed become key sources of important news which is otherwise not covered much, if at all, by the traditional sections of the organization. It’s not that we need social-media journalists, but beat journalists who know how to incorporate social-media as a key resource.

Journalism schools need to classes which teach these skills, and news organizations have train people on them. Some of these skills echo those of traditional journalism, while others are novel ones. (How to detect sockpuppets (developing a “sockdar”), how to triungulate citizen reports, how to find conversations about a particular topic, etc., for example.)

2-      We need better technical tools as well as more people using them. Tools such as “storify” which allow one to “make a story” out of tweets are useful but are barely the tip of the iceberg of what’s needed. For example, it would be great if one could “tag” tweets as “if you accept this tweet, you also accept one more tweet to be sent later.” This could be an opt-in feature and be limited to one tweet per original tweet. I certainly wish I was able to reach everyone who might have seen my earlier, later shown to be incorrect tweets.

Many tools are needed and someone needs to create them. I was happy to recently hear that Columbia school of journalism has five students majoring in journalism and computer science. May this model spread, and may developing new platforms for journalism also be seen properly as journalism–as it requires a proper understanding of the craft and process of journalism, not just how to code, to create these tools.

3-      Pack behaviour of traditional journalism is sometimes being replicated in the cascade behaviour of social-media based journalism. This can be fought against by incorporating *more* citizen journalism and openly encouraging challenges. @Mostafa and @Rashaabdulla, in the end, were the ones that did the journalistic leg work in this story and neither are professionals but both are known as careful and trustworthy individuals. This brings us back to the importance of beat –I trusted Rasha’s reporting, for example, because she is a a fellow professor, social scientist and a colleague and I know her to be careful with facts. For me, it wasn’t about “oh, here’s a tweet” but more about “oh, here’s a person with a solid reputation.” This is no different than what traditional journalism does.

In the end, I’m arguing for neither pure process journalism, which is cumbersome for the audience and will likely increase inequalities in the public sphere, nor product journalism, which hides its errors and process under the rug, but a new merger which is aware of its strengths and weaknesses, with strong commitment to factual reporting, context, triangulation, evaluating of sources, claims and facts, as well as an explicit welcoming of challenges, and, above all, welcoming the visibility of errors not as a reason to abandon contributions from citizen journalism, but as an opportunity for improvement and enrichment.

The #freemona Perfect Storm: Dissent and the Networked Public Sphere


It was a calm, quite night, almost nine o’clock, on the eve of Thanksgiving holiday when, out of the corner of my eye, a tweet shook me:

Egyptian-American writer and my friend Mona El Tahawy, who had cut her trip in North Africa short to join the exploding Tahrir protests in her native country, had just sent that out. Short, uncapitalized, clearly written in a hurry. And with that, she went silent.

As a scholar and a concerned citizen, I had been following Egypt’s revolt closely. I knew that the security apparatus in Egypt had, in some ways, grown even more arbitrary since the ouster of long-term autocrat Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of intense protests in Tahrir. About 12,000 civilians had been detained and were subject to “military trials”. Since the eruption of new protests, at least 35 protestors had been killed and thousands injured. A few weeks ago, a prisoner, Essam Atta, had been tortured to death in prison.

At worst, Mona’s life was in danger. At best, she would likely be subject to beatings, sexual abuse.

As I stared at the tweet as my mind raced back to my conversations with Mona about her days in the American University of Cairo and her lifelong, outspoken opposition to Egypt’s autocracy. Because she was a Guardian columnist, a prolific tweeterer and a public speaker, she was identifed with the Egyptian uprising by many. She would certainly be in trouble with her country’s military rulers.

Her tweet stream indicated that she was near  Mohammed Mahmoud street, where clashes had been going on for days between protestors and CSF, the paramilitary police. Most likely, I thought, she was apprehended by people who did not know of her global standing, but saw her as a woman out in the street late at night involved in protests–and I knew this too would be a big danger to her. Soon, though, mid-level higher-ups would discover that she was relatively well-known–and her treatment from then on would likely depend on public reaction to her arrest–both in Egypt and globally.  Prominent Egyptian activist and my friend Alaa Abd-el Fattah, who is now in prison under the military trials regime, was also arrested in 2006 and spent six months in Mubarak’s jails. Alaa later stated that the global campaign to free him probably caused him to spend more time in prison, as the regime realized they had a valuable target, but also spared him from torture.

When activists are arrested, in some cases, it is best to keep it quiet. In some cases it is best to kick up a big storm. Worst option, however, is to kick up a small storm which irritates the powerful, but without enough strength to nudge them to action. Considering the options, I thought Mona needs the latter, and probably cannot be quietly freed anyway. As a woman, she’s in danger from the low-level police who now have her at their mercy. She needs to be plucked out of there, and that requires high-level intervention. As a prominent dissident, she is in danger from those higher-ups who might want to make an example of her the way they are currently doing with Alaa.  Mona needed a huge  campaign which made  it costlier to keep her than to release her.

A few decades ago, contemplating launching a global campaign like this would require that I own, say, a television station or two. I hadn’t even unpacked my television set when I moved to Chapel Hill to take up a position as an assistant professor in University of North Carolina. Heck, I dodn’t even have a landline phone. But, “I” wasn’t just an “I.”  Due to my academic and personal interests, I was connected to a global network of people ranging from grassroots activists in Egypt to journalists and politicians, from ordinary people around the world to programmers and techies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. My options weren’t just cursing at a television set –if her arrest had even made the news in the next few days. I could at least try to see what *we* could do, and do quickly.

Concise, fast, global, public and connected was what we needed, and, for that, there is nothing better than Twitter.

I immediately reached out to Andy Carvin, NPR journalist extraordinaire who’s been covering the Middle East uprisings, and a friend of many years going back digital divide efforts, a topic which I’ve long studied as a scholar. I was very happy to see he was online and, of course, similarly aghast at Mona’s situation.

One challenge of new media environments is that they scatter attention and consequently tools and channels which can unite and focus attention are key to harnessing their power. Hashtags and trending topics are one way in which people can focus among the billions of tweets floating in cyberspace. In fact, a key dynamic in  “social media” is that it works best when coordinated with “focusers”: trending topics, Al Jazeera, Andy Carvin (whose stream is widely followed) are all focusers, albeit very different ones (Well, one is a satellite TV channel, one is a cool guy with a very cute, huge dog, and the last one is an algorithm). Hence, the “Occupy” movement was deeply disappointed when Andy Carvin did not cover them, as his beat was Middle East, and as he already works about seven days a week. Occupy activists knew that without Carvin, they had lost a potential focuser. (Police brutality and overreaction solved that problem for Occupy movement by garnering traditional media coverage which served as a crucial focuser).

So, first, I knew we needed a hasthag. A focuser.

Wanting a short one due to Twitter’s character limits, I proposed “#Mona”. Andy quickly checked and realized that it was already in use and suggested “#freemona.” I tweeted out an agreement and opened a column in my Tweetdeck to check only tweets tagged “#freemona”. In about a minute, the column started flowing too quickly for me to read everything.

20 minutes later, #freemona was trending worldwide.


Ok, that’s the global campaign, I thought as I marveled at how quickly it had taked off with barely a nudge. In the pre-social media world, it might have taken weeks and a lot of luck to achieve even a sliver of such awareness globally.

But that wasn’t the only leg of our frantic,  crowdsourced efforts. @Cairowire, curated by @sarahbadr, contacted the US Embassy — and informed us of this fact on Twitter so we could avoid flooding them with calls. She live-tweeted her call so we could provide as accurate information as we knew in response to questions from the Embassy.  Was she a US citizen? I knew she was, and others chimed in. Where was she seen last? What was her birthday? I looked it up and answered. Who was she with? People chimed in with what they knew.  @Cairowire told us the embassy had taken down the information.

Many times, the most dangerous moment for a dissident or an activist is the police station where low-level functionaries can have impunity to do the worst. The combination of her gender, personality, citizenship and her role as a media person was a very dangerous mix for that “police station” phase. We needed to try for very high-level intevention to pluck her out–and it was almost 4am in Cairo and a holiday in the United States.

With very similar thoughts –and we were constantly conversing–, Andy Carvin and I both reached out to Anne-Marie Slaughter, prominent Princeton professor and former advisor to Hillary Clinton. She’s probably better known to most people as Twitterer extraordinaire, @SlaughterAM where she can be regularly found mixing it up with high-level politicians, activists, ordinary people around the world. To my relief, she was online. She jumped to action. Soon, she  reported that she had reached out to her contacts at the State Department, and that this was being dealt with at the highest levels as the urgent situation it was:



Egyptian activists on the ground, who had been organizing against the arbitrary arrest and detentions, were best placed find her and to provide her with legal and other resources. Cairo never sleeps, and, sure enough, many of them were online. Shahira Abouellail, @fazerofzanight, who works tirelessly with the no military trials campaign responded quickly and informed us of the likely sequence of events, places she might be at and that she would make sure that lawyers would start looking for her early in the morning. (In fact, all through last week,  Shahira had been talking about all the people being detained, beaten and abused as the protests grew).

A similar outreach effort was launched, especially to the tech community, to  see if Mona’s tweets, or tweets of people we thought might have been arrested with her, contained geolocation information which was available to Twitter (as storified by @katz):



Soon,  though, that turned out not to be the case (although that had been essential in confirming the arrest of Slim Amamou, for example when Slim “checked in” at the Ministry of Interior in Tunisia during the protests.)

Finally, at the same time, global media had started picking up on Mona’s disappearance. I urged my Egyptian tweeps to contact local media as exposure can sometimes be the best protection for a dissident as storified by@katz):



Many people misunderstand the power of publicity on repressive regimes. Just because the power of a state is relatively unchecked by institutional balances does not means that it has infinite repressive capacity, or that it is unconcerned about public opinion. All regimes, even the most repressive ones, are concerned about legitimacy and appearances. In a debate with Andrew Rasijej, Evgeny Morozov tweeted the following:

This, of course, is naïve. Egyptian army absolutely gives a damn about social media. You only need to notice that they have their very own Facebook page and release their “communiqués” solely through Facebook.. Why? Because, like all repressive regimes, they realize that their power rests not just on coercion, but also a degree of legitimacy and acquiescence among the public–and the public sphere increasingly incorporates networked citizenry on social media. Hence,  they are there where they rightly perceive many Egyptian activists and citizens are. In the 21st century, no regime worth its salt will ignore social media; those who do will find themselves looking for places to retire.

In fact, I know of no better proof about the power of social media to potentially empower dissent than the numerous anecdotes in Evgeny Morozov’s book about the extraordinary efforts authoritarian regimes go to suppress, control and censor social media. If it were actually irrelevant, they would have happily ignored it. Instead, they are on full-alert, attempting to fight social media on all cylinders.

It’s also naïve to think that the Egyptian army does not give a damn about the State Department, especially when it comes to releasing activists. SCAF, like all repressive apparatus, makes calculations about costs and benefits–and keeping a prominent journalist in detention becomes more costly when combined with a global publicity campaign, State Department pressure, Egyptian activists, as well as local and global media coverage.

Of course, such global campaigns also play a role in how State Department acts. State Department is the foreign policy arm of the most powerful country in the world and, as such it will act according to what it perceives as the foreign policy interests of the United States. However, global campaigns can make it harder for foreign policy interests of the United States to align with supporting repressive regimes. (I personally and strongly believe that the true and long-term interests of the United States also lie in this direction and that historians will look at its support for repressive regimes as colossal mistakes). I believe that social media can help us organize to make sure big governments are pushed to do the right thing. Besides, State Department, like any other institution, is composed of people and I am sure some of those people would rather help do the right thing. “The Whole World is Watching” is such a resonant slogan for a reason.

So, it was a perfect storm. A global social media campaign, institutional power, grassroots Egyptian activists, network-savvy global players and traditional media converged upon Mona El Tahawy’s case. It had been merely a few hours and I thought that all that we could do was done. People on the ground were aware and mobilized, global media was covering the event, official attempts were being undertaken, and a global conversation of concern was taking place in the still dizzily flying #freemona column on my monitor. I went to bed, still buzzed from the frantic activity but in need of some rest.

After a few hours of restless sleep, I woke up and immediately checked my Mona’s twitter feed. It beamed, “I AM FREE”:

  Sexually assaulted, beaten, arms and hands broken, but in high spirits, she was out. Through broken bones, she detailed her ordeal first on Twitter, and later on CNN, BBC and Egyptian local media and beyond:


 Social Media’s Role: Untangling Causality in Social Science

Was she freed because of the global campaign? While it is always important to carefully consider the evidence, in social science, always beware of people who automatically say “But you haven’t proven it!” because that shows they either don’t understand how social science works, or they do and they are disingenuous and are seeking argument for the sake of argument or attention. That’s just now the way it works in social science.

To put it bluntly, there is no way to conclusively prove anything in social science simply because we cannot do real experiments. (Take the identical person, place them in an alternative universe under equal conditions except social media and see how it would evolve. You see the problem: no alternate universe, no time machine, no cloning technology). So the question is never “did you prove it” but rather “what’s the evidence, what more data can we bring to this question, what’s our conceptual model and is it convincing?”

Social scientists do advance knowledge. As always, the more data the better. However, almost always, data remains suggestive and associative (it seems more of X was associated with more of Y). In order to understand a dynamic, we also look at causative mechanisms, narratives, comparative cases and limits — what’s missing and not happening as what’s not happening can be as useful.

Good analysis in social science also requires good theoretical understanding which basically means correctly conceptualizing the dynamics in play. Start wrong, and you aren’t going anywhere.

Most important conceptual point is this: The idea that “social media does help make X happen” DOES NOT mean it was just social media–because that is a theoretical stance which views social media as not part of this word. In fact, critics of social media often fall into this trap as they keep repeating “it wasn’t just social media” as if that were a valid criticism. To state “it wasn’t just social media” is a mere and trivial description of the world, not an analysis of dynamics of how social media plays a role – was it big or small? Was it crucial or trivial? What were the pathways?

“It wasn’t just social media” is not a refutation because as stated, that sentence is devoid of cognitive content.

This theoretical stance is also why I try to avoid terms like “virtual” because it suggests something “not real”. Social media is “real”, as real as anything else out there. Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey call this “augmented reality”. I prefer to call it just reality.

The interesting question is, always, what role did social media play in altering dynamics of an event? And at first level of abstraction, the answer is often, yes, social media played a role because it is now an increasingly integral and important part of communicative infrastructure, part of the formation of the public sphere, part of networked activism, and part of everyday life. In the 21st century, it will be increasingly impossible to do political analyses without discussing social media dynamics as an integral part of the story.

You cannot tell the story of the Arab uprisings, for example, without including the story of the role of social media. Again, though, that is obviously not the only dynamic–how could it be? As Clay Shirky nicely explains  here, when people say “Social Media did X”, they mean that it played an important role because that is how the English language works. When we say, “A person was shot by a gun” we don’t mean “the gun got up and shot the person” (well, not yet anyway as robotics may change that); rather, we mean that “someone pulled the trigger and that it is important that the weapon was a gun” –a lot more lethal–than say a pointed stick –much less a danger–or a knife– still dangerous but slower and often more survivable. Hence, the full story of the Arab uprisings will include determined activists, labor unions, human-rights advocates, ordinary people, Facebook and Twitter, protests in Tahrir, dissension within the elites, United States and other governments and many other factors. But, it doesn’t include everything so this is not a laundry list. Sword fights, for example, were not part of the equation in the Arab Spring as they would be if it were an uprising in the Middle Ages.

So, to conceptually analyze the role of social media in Mona’s case let’s look at what it did do, as well as comparative cases of its limits and challenges.

Social Media and Dynamics of a Global Campaign

1- Speed. Social media speeds up everything.

Without social media, so many people wouldn’t have known so quickly that she was arrested, beaten. With one tweet, she reached out to tens of thousands of people all at once. In the past, there would have been a response, but it would likely have been much slower. A campaign by Amnesty International in the old days might take days to organize, especially during Thanksgiving. And “slower” and “faster” are just not the same dynamic for multiple reasons. In other words, something faster doesn’t give you what something slower would give you, just quicker. It results in a different conclusion. Faster is different.

2- Social media allows for complex, diverse ad hoc networks to come together:

I cannot fathom getting a such diverse group of people ranging from journalists to Egyptian activists to State Department officials responding to the same situation, in a coordinated fashion, so quickly, without Twitter (and a few emails. It was almost all Twitter). Even simple questions can be a nightmare to organize. Who will call the embassy? What’s her date of birth? Who’s arranging the lawyer?

3-Social media is integrated in an increasingly global, networked public sphere:

Once again, people from Japan to Brazil to Australia to China talked about her disappearance. There is simply no analog to such grassroots-powered intervention in the public sphere, at a global level at that, pre-social media. Yes, it is not one big happy family but it is a level of integration that simply was not there a mere decade ago. Along with all the fractures, divides, inequalities, and conflicts, a networked public sphere has emerged. And it is global.

4-Social Media fosters personal interaction:

Because Mona was a prolific tweeter, she had interacted personally with many people in the past and that was probably important in her visibility. Before days of social media, she would be just a face on a newspaper column–still powerful, but not as personal. And personal connections matter deeply for human beings. And, yes, personal connections can flourish online as well as online/offline. She wasn’t just a face or a columnist or a public speaker– she was Mona to tens and tens of thousands of people.

5- Social media works for prominent people better (rich get richer):

Social media, like almost new tools, can differentially empower the already connected (rich get richer) as opposed to the completely or weakly unconnected. There are 12,000 people who were detained by military prosecutors in Egypt and many languish in jails without such attention.

However, this is not an either/or situation. Whether or not #freemona and #freealaa help others depends on whether they become “charismatic megafauna” –where a prominent example helps the whole ecology– or part of a “celebrity system”–where a few people get the attention in isolation.

Charismatic megafauna is how ecologists refer to popular animals such as the Panda or tigers–powerful symbols which help move people to preserve vast amounts of landscape. Ecologists aren’t just interested in playing with cuddly panda or tiger babies, and would like to save the whole ecosystem — but carefully and deliberately put faces of pandas and tigers on their campaigns because of the the way human brain and human societies work. It is just very hard to move large numbers of people without powerful and sympathetic symbols.

Mona and Alaa are both such powerful and sympathetic symbols and they are both aware of this. In spite of the fact that his wife is about to give birth to their first child, Alaa refused deals which would have gotten him released if only he would accept a few limits on his speech because he realizes the powerful symbolic position he occupies. In her very first interview, Mona immediately talked about her fellow detainees and how those less privileged than her face much worse fates. Still, though, it is not just up to their efforts whether attention bestowed only upon them. Activists and concerned people must be cognizant of this fraught negotiation between using the power of the spotlight on one person versus using it shine it on wider swaths.

This can’t be done just by complaining about the “celebrity” or “star” system as not only is that not going away (because it is a deep human impulse), and it is often the best way to start a campaign. The problem is making sure it doesn’t stop there–and that remains an open question and constant struggle.

6- Personal networks, unsurprisingly, remain the underlying key anchors of the global social media networks (hubs matter and hubs tend to be dense and interconnected among each other):

The strength of personal networks is in social movements and campaigns unsurprising. However, the point needs to be made explicitly because so many people still talk about “social media” as something virtual, or something “not real”. My observations and studies from the Arab Uprisings show that most of the key “hub” activists had deep personal connections among each other – connections which often started on social media, sometimes migrated offline, sometimes did not–but were nonetheless strong and deep. In other words, “strong ties” are important: the fallacy is thinking these ties are not aided by, or sometimes solely lived through social media. Such personal, powerful but relatively small networks also raise important questions about how things might have been different if either Andy Carvin or Ann Marie Slaughter were mashing sweet potatoes instead of being online that night? (The answer isn’t an automatic “totally different” as dynamic networks can both exhibit “hub-and-spoke” structures and  replace “hubs” quickly if one is taken out. Still, the question is an important one to consider)

7- Traditional big interests remain powerful and, along with dynamics of the attention economy, social media cannot overcome all obstacles (Bahrain. Bahrain).

Egypt and Tahrir have managed to capture the world’s heart and interest. The ongoing protests in Bahrain –a smaller, less-populated country where U.S. and Saudi Arabia have much deeper entrenched interests and somewhat more complicated by ethnic tensions– remains mostly off the radar in spite of prominent online organizing and broad participation in protests.

That is not to say that social media played no role (it almost always plays a major role) in the Bahrain’s protests. In fact, most of the country is online and the battle for legitimacy is raged both online and in the streets. Without the Internet, the opposition in Bahrain may have never managed to organize and mount such a campaign. With the Internet, it can mount such a campaign but cannot overcome the limits of being a small country in the world’s oil-producing region, hence very big interests aligned against it. (As this story is ongoing, it remains to be seen how it all plays out). I would still argue that social media has made it harder to suppress Bahraini citizens’ aspirations for more democracy and participation. A more complex case is unfolding in Syria (not going into that as this post is long enough) where lack of organized dissent before the uprising makes it very hard to use social media to organize.

8-Just like pre-social media, it remains easier to organize for “no” harder to organize complex discussions:

Again and again, social media have proven very useful in organizing single issue campaigns “Down with X” or “Release Y” but it is a lot more complicated to organize a complex course of action. This, of course, is not a feature of social media but a feature of life — a “no” is more simple and only requires agreeing to a single point whereas the space of all possible versions of “yes” is vast and complicated. Social media does not magically solve this problem. Wikipedia is a very important example in this regard, both to understand the possibilities (pretty useful, fairly accurate entries are produced most of the time) and the limits (Wikipedia is a high-conflict, mostly-male environment with powerful “wikignomes” who wield a lot of power.)

In the end, did the #freemona campaign help free Mona? My conclusion is that it quite likely played a key role, as analyzed in the above multi-layer mix. Without a social media campaign, she might have languished in jail for days or months the way thousands of people on whom such attention is not bestowed in Egypt are languishing in jails. As a U.S.-Egyptian dual citizen, as a columnist, as a prominent social-media personality, and as someone with many personal connections who could be mobilized to help her, she was well-positioned to be helped by these efforts. I also don’t doubt that the attention her case is getting will help bring more attention to the problem of arbitrary detentions, arrests and military trials in Egypt – again, compared to a pre-social media world where there would be zero to no attention, this is a massive step forward. (Added: By no means this is enough–I am comparing with the past rather than making a normative statement).

As always, though, a complex mix of causal factors, from protests in Tahrir and elsewhere in Egypt to international geopolitics will structure the future of Egypt. It is also clear that the networked public sphere is now an integral, causal dynamic in this multi-dimensional, multi-causal system. This makes it even more important to move beyond trivial denounciations –“it wasn’t just the social media”– to a deeper understanding which looks at specfic actors, dynamics, networks and beyong to understand, and also, to change this world.


PS. Edited the evening of Friday, Nov. 25 to correct typos, add links, and slightly clarify a few sentences which were missing words. May continue to edit for typos and for adding links. On Monday, November 28th, I added a few more tweets using the excellent storify by @katz which can be found here.


Too Many Messages and Only One Facebook Page: April 6th Movement in Post-Mubarak Egypt

Guest post by Susannah Vila

This post draws from over 30 in-depth, semi structured interviews conducted with coordinators of and participants in the Egyptian revolution between March and August 2011

By late July, Egyptian protesters in Cairo had been camped out in Tahrir Square for nearly 3 weeks. Though the mood was jovial, it was clear that residents of the square were considering an approaching end game.

During this wind-down of the 3 week sit-in, I met Ahmed Maher from the April 6th Youth Movement a few blocks from Tahrir at a coffee shop. April 6 (hereafter A6Y) is perhaps the most well-known network of young people coordinating actions during the years before January 25th. In recent months a spate of new, wired revolutionary youth movements, many of which were formed by Egyptians that were politically activated by the winter’s uprising, have also emerged.

Maher still has a day job, and does all of his April 6 related work after sunset. It was nearly midnight when we got together. He said a few hellos – nearly half of the customers seemed to know him –sat down, and rushed into an account of A6Y’s recent growth.

“There is no split,” he assured me, referring to accounts in the Egyptian and international press of infighting and divisions among A6Y members. This affirmation was partly true. A6Y did indeed turn out to be much more intact than I had expected. It still, however, struggled to communicate its goals and messages to the more tech-savvy revolutionaries that were sitting in mere blocks away.

The fact that it wasn’t hard to find someone in Tahrir who would express disillusionment with A6Y is indicative of the larger challenge that he and colleagues face today: after the political sphere is broken open by uprising, how do you maintain and build upon support among the highly-wired crowd while simultaneously recruiting offline Egyptians? A6Y’s struggle to address this question has left it, as FP’s Marc Lynch put it last week, one of many wired revolutionary movements currently “floundering” and unable to connect either with one another or with the general public. But, as my discussions with Maher and others would make clear, this is not for lack of trying.

Adapting the Organizational Structure for Offline Outreach

In the years before the uprising of January 25th, fear of state repression made offline organizing a difficult feat. The online space – from blogs and YouTube to Facebook- created an alternative public sphere wherein a movement could more covertly engage with, and be discovered by, new supporters. As one Egyptian activist put it, “we couldn’t talk like this on the street…we had to do it online.”

The transformation of Egyptian political culture after Mubarak’s ouster has made it easier to engage and mobilize citizens in the offline space. Taking advantage of its newfound ability to organize freely on the street, A6Y has restructured to allocate more resources to recruitment efforts. Grabbing a pen from the table next to us, Maher drew me a diagram of the 4 committees through which April 6 allocated responsibility before the uprising and then a diagram of the 6 that it consists of today.

Before January 25th , A6Y was divided into a media, political, finance and people’s action committee. Since the work of the people’s action committee – recruiting and mobilizing new members – can now be done publicly and offline, its mandate expanded and its management structure was split it into three committees with separate leadership.

The purpose of expanding and refining its recruitment strategy is to gain further leverage and power in the political sphere. The more loyal, reliable and organized the movement’s membership is, this thinking goes, the more effectively it will be able to hold government accountable.Rather than simply joining a Facebook group, a member must now pay monthly dues and carry an A6Y identification card.

By raising the barrier to entry, Maher hopes to enhance the value of membership as a political currency. “Do we want to be like the Muslim Brotherhood?” he said. “Ask us in 80 years – that’s how long they have had,” referring to the brotherhood’s success in creating (while it was banned from politics) a civil society organization that draws political clout from the loyalty and breadth of its membership.

Building Political Support by Addressing Social Issues

A few days after my meeting with Maher, I spoke with Wael Mustafa (named changed to preserve anonymity), the leader of the street campaigns committee that acts at the center for A6Y’s offline efforts.He was quick to stress that online social networks are not a large part of his day-to-day work.

We go to different neighborhoods and ask people what their problem is – in one area [for example] there is a huge sewage problem, we take in that information, and take it to the [appropriate government] ministry,” he said of his most recent effort, called the “What’s Your Problem?” campaign.

April 6 hopes to use campaigns like this one to grow into an organization that better connects Egyptians with government –lobbying the latter to do the bidding of the former. The fate of the “What’s Your Problem?” campaign may be an important metric for A6Y’s larger success and, with this in mind, Mustafa told me, they had just decided to create a new committee tasked exclusively with interfacing between citizens and appropriate government ministries. They called it, fittingly, the “ministry follow-up committee.”

April 6th Leadership Still Relies on Facebook to Share Information

Mustafa, as head of a committee, and Maher, as the Coordinator, make up 2 of 25 people who sit at the top of the organization’s hierarchy. A leader in any given governorate spends the day talking to people in his community. He has conversations in the street, on the phone, and at daily local meetings. Then, at the end of the day, he goes to “the kitchen—the name given to the private Facebook group that primary coordinators like Mustafa and Maher have been using since before the uprising.

The kitchen is indicative of a formal hierarchy that previously existed but that has been solidified since February. It is called that because, as Maher told me, “it’s where we are cooking up our decisions.” After deciding on next steps in this online space, primary coordinators channel their decisions back down to localities through the same combination of face-to-face conversation, mobile phones and online media.

Too Many Messages and Only One Facebook Page

A6Y continues to use Facebook and Twitter as it did before the revolution: for both private, group decision-making and to curate and broadcast political news. This doesn’t seem to leave much space to disseminate information about offline activities like the “What’s Your Problem” campaign. For a movement attempting to recruit, their ability to publicize and promote their successful ventures is perhaps still insufficient.

The most dedicated revolutionaries, many of which were not active before the January uprising, know little about A6Y’s efforts at offline expansion. After my initial coffee with Maher, I met up with a member of Egypt’s new “Twitterati” activist crowd. I told her everything that Mustafa and Maher described to me. It was all news to her – and to most others I spoke to in the vicinity.

At the same time, the general public has also lost patience with protesters—including A6Y. As one Tahrir protester(who has nothing to do with April 6) told me “we’ve lost the street because our messaging is wrong, and I attribute that to a lack of a clear roadmap” for the future. Maher agreed, saying: “people are concerned about their salaries and they want us to stop protesting.”

This is compounded by the fact that their main communication tool from before the revolution, Facebook, is not conducive to the more complex methods for information broadcasting that’s required of the organization that it is trying to become. Social media is more useful for disseminating one message – we are fed up and want Mubarak out –to as many people as possible than for targeting different messages to different audiences. Ideally, A6Y would have a Facebook page intended for Tahrir Square types, and one meant for the wider, more reluctant segment of the population that joined the site more recently. (This, of course, is just one aspect of a communications effort that must target the still offline majority).

What’s Next?

“The Egyptian revolution is unique. In every other one, the person who caused it goes into government right after. We haven’t done that in Egypt,” said Maher. Indeed, from Otpor to the Orange Revolution, this is the first 21st century movement that has opted to remain a lobbying coalition rather than entering politics.

That not much has changed in Egypt in terms of who wields political power underscores the importance of A6Y’s decision to take on this role. But their expansion holds just as much peril as promise. It is hard enough for a movement to maintain support among an increasingly frustrated citizenry after a political uprising. By formalizing membership and shifting resources towards recruiting the formerly apolitical, A6Y runs the risk of deserting its base of support.

The challenges that the April 6 Youth Movement face today raise bigger questions about lessons learned for revolutionaries after uprisings. How can a movement that largely began on Facebook take organizing offline while also engaging with the younger, more wired activists, who formerly served as an important segment of its base, and are now less likely to know what its goals, plans and activities are – let alone support it?

Don’t Suspend Scout Finch, Mr. Schmidt. It’s Wrong and It’s Bad for Business.

Ex-CEO of Google Eric Schmidt made waves recently during an interview with NPR’s Andy Carvin where he defended the current implementation Google +“real names” policy:

The Internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer or what have you.
…And the Internet did not develop this in many ways because the Internet came out of universities where the issue of authentication wasn’t such a big issue. Everybody trusted everybody, you didn’t have these kinds of things.

But my general rule is people have a lot of free time and people on the Internet, there are people who do really really evil and wrong things on the Internet, and it would be useful if we had strong identity so we could weed them out. I’m not suggesting eliminating them, what I’m suggesting is if we knew their identity was accurate, we could rank them. Think of them like an identity rank.

There is a lot to unpack here but let me start by saying this: if the goal is to create a social network, a place where people can socialize, share, chat, argue, organize, and –yes- vociferously disagree, it is true that stable and embedded identities are more conducive to this outcome. Sociological research talks about “deindividuation” –the notion that without being closely tied to individual accountability, individuals may commit acts which are outside of social norms which would otherwise bind them.  Plus, in a reduced-cues environment such as the Internet, it may well be easier say things which are hurtful as one is spared from having to look someone in the eye (and we do know face-to-face interaction indeed taps into powerful and deep parts of our biological endowment as humans).

In fact, thinking about Eric Schmidt’s remarks reminded me of that famous scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” when little Scout Finch (9 years old) and her lawyer father Atticus face a mob trying to lynch, Tom Robinson, a Black men falsely accused of rape in U.S. Deep South in the pre-civil rights era. As the angry, agitated crowd gathers outside the jail, Scout recognizes one person, Mr. Cunningham, and calls out to him by name. Here’s the event, in Scout’s words:

In ones and twos, men got out of the cars. Shadows became substance as lights revealed solid shapes moving toward the jail door. Atticus remained where he was. The men hid him from view. … They were sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours. I sought once more for a familiar fare. And at the center of the semi-circle I found one.

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”

The man did not hear me, it seemed.

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham. How’s your entailment gettin’ along?”

Mr. Walter Cunningham’s legal affairs were well known to me; Atticus had once described them at length. The big man blinked and hooked his thumbs in his overall straps. He seemed uncomfortable; he cleared his throat and looked away. My friendly overture had fallen flat….

 “Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” I began to sense the futility one feels when unacknowledged by a chance acquaintance.

“I go to school with Walter,” I began again. “He’s your boy ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”

Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He did know me, after all.

“He’s in my grade,” I said, “and he does right well. He’s a good boy,” I added, “a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?”

Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in….“Entailments are bad,” I was advising him, when I slowly awoke to the fact that I was addressing the entire aggregation. The men were all looking at me, some had their mouths half-open. …

I began to feel sweat gathering at the edges of my hair; I could stand anything but a bunch of people looking at me. They were quite still.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

Atticus said nothing. I looked around and up at Mr. Cunningham, whose face was equally impassive. Then he did a peculiar thing. He squatted down and took me by both shoulders.

“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said.

Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out,” he called. “Let’s get going, boys.”

As they had come, in ones and twos the men shuffled back to their ramshackle cars. Doors slammed, engines coughed, and they were gone.

Indeed this is a very moving example of a person being pulled away from a “deindividualized” mob situation back into being an individual, a father, a neighbor, a citizen, a person. I’m sure many school children were moved to tears by Scout’s simple act of humanity–and the human response it provokes. This is also a classic of social-psychology in terms of demonstrating mob behaviors. It seems to bolster Schmidt’s point perfectly… but wait! Who?

Scout? Who’s Scout? Didn’t she just say her name was Jean Louise? Would Google+ terminate her account if she signed up as Scout? What’s on your government issued document, “Scout”?

While Google+ terms-of-service do say you can use the “name you are known by in everyday life”, Google+ has been suspending user accounts of people who signed up with the name they are known by–indeed, who is to say what name you are known by except your social network? If Scout is Scout to her father and to her friends, she is Scout except she can’t ever prove that except to say, here I stand. As Scout.

And my point is that Schmidt is confusing what they want (a troll-lite, spam-free platform in which people interact/share with each other) with a policy of real names, however one can define those. Indeed in response to Andy Carvin’s next question, Schmidt makes a statement which makes me think Google still does not understand what really makes Facebook work (hint, it’s social norms more than its policies):

Question: One of the early controversies around Google+ is you not allowing people to use nicknames. Andy Carvin, who’s over from NPR actually at the festival, is asking on Twitter: “How does Google justify its real names only policy on Google+ when it could put some people at grave risk?”.

Schmidt: Well, the first comment is that Google+ is completely optional. In fact, many many people want to get in, if you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to. …. There are obviously people for which using their real name is not appropriate, and it’s completely optional, and if you’re one of those people don’t do it. Seems obvious.

What Schmidt and, presumably, Google+ wants is stable identities embedded in social networks. And it’s true such a platform requires effort and attention. However, a “real name” policy isn’t the way to get there. Neither is insisting that people use a more conventional name or their name on a government issued ID. (Most of the cases I’ve encountered seem to be people who go by unusual names like “Skud”)

The reason that Facebook works is because it is practically non-optional, i.e. it is the place to be and to find friends and family members; it’s where everyone else is. It’s the opposite of what Schmidt says Google+ will become, optional. And in order to be found, people often choose to use a name that they are known by to their social network. Facebook does not work because Facebook is after everyone with a nickname, suspending their accounts: my research shows that, even among college students, about 10-20% use some sort of nickname—however, it’s a nickname they’ve shared with people they want to interact with. That’s the key to Facebook–the embedded, prolonged, sustained interaction, not the exact name or “real” name.

Facebook also launched within relatively encapsulated communities like Harvard and then to other colleges, and expanded town by town, country by country. Usually, there would be a rush to sign up as Facebook opened up in a new college and pretty soon, a large number of people embedded dense networks would be on Facebook (plus, early Facebook had strong privacy protections which helped it attract people).

As a late-comer, Google may not have the same options as Facebook. But at a minimum, it can learn that the key to success is not real names (remember, about 20% of Facebook may be nicknames) but stable, embedded identities in which people have invested time and effort. And the way to get there is to become a non-optional platform, a place where people feel like they would miss out if they were not on. Shrugging, oh, well, our platform is optional is exactly the way to make your platform, well, first an optional place, then a take-it-or-leave-it choice, then a chore, finally a why-bother moment, followed by a platform-death. (Buzz, anyone?).

Google launched among the tech community which tends to have widespread weak ties–and this has it pluses and minuses. (For one thing, it does not completely encapsulate any locale except perhaps Silicon Valley which is a major disadvantage). Further, the tech community tends to be a place many people adopt a chosen name. Instead of being very happy that well-known, well-embedded people like Skud were signing up, Google chose to spend its efforts on trying to cut the very tree whose limb it’s sitting on. (And this is a completely self-inflicted, inexplicable wound: as the Turkish saying goes, the tree being cut is most sad about the fact that the handle of the ax is wood, i.e. also from trees).

So, what should Google do? I think Circles is a very strong feature and a very attractive point. There is clearly a need for such a reasonable way to share; the fact that Facebook is rushing to adapt some of these innovations is a good sign for Google. Hangouts are great. Other community features need to catch-up very quickly.

To make Google+ succeed, the key thing Google needs to do is expand as fast as possible (to get network effects), encapsulate dense communities so people can embed within their natural social networks, and with features which provide what one can’t find on Facebook (circles, quick privacy controls, hangouts) or Twitter (less spam, ability to mix directed and undirected networks, visibility controls, space to write) with killer features on managing the social network which make people want to invest time and effort.

In that respect, Google+ should invest real resources, for example, to keep G+ clear of spammers and trolls – by hiring people who deal with this, for example, and also by setting up an easy way to report/mute/block trolls and spam. It should create an awesome interface to deal with trolls, to mute posters, for example, to partake in conversations in a flexible manner, for thread-owners to have the ability to quickly and easily adjust participation in their own threads. (Don’t anyone cry censorship; it’s my thread and I’m under no obligation to discuss everything with everyone unless I’m acting as a public official, say, but that is not for Google to enforce). I can think of dozens of features that no online platform really has but would actually benefit conversations. That’s a better place to use resources–especially compared with trying to hunt down whose name was what on their birth certificate.

The question of activists under authoritarian regimes is a thorny one (and I’ve written more about it here). However, Google’s stance doesn’t even make business sense. It would be to Google’s benefit (as well as the benefit of the activists) if Google+ allowed for stable identities embedded in social networks masked by nicknames in such countries. (Again, it’s the embeddedness in social networks, not the name which provides the social norms: “Tell him hey for me, won’t you?” Mr Cunningham is pulled into a community; his name is just the rope which pulls him. It doesn’t have to be the name on his birth certificate; it just has to be the name he accepts and recognizes.)

It’s not just good human rights practice but also good business practice because networks succeed if people–yes real people but using names they choose—populate them. And there are millions of people who live under such regimes, and millions of people outside these countries who might like to interact with them as members of large diasporas, as family members, as journalists, as ordinary citizens. If they were on Google+, I’d be there more often, too.

So, Google, you want real people, not “real names.” Real people often use names other than those on their driver’s license or government issued ID for multiple reasons. And people hang out where they are most comfortable, and people are most comfortable when their identity is under their own control, rather than dictated by corporate policies. And online platforms succeed to the degree people spend time and effort to embed themselves in real relationships; and it’s those embedding that creates the behaviors Schmidt says that Google is seeking, not naming policies or draconian enforcement by bureaucracies.

Online platforms succeed if you can establish a reputation to defend; if you have gotten to know people; if you kept your friends; found old ones; if your conversations are not drowned out by spam; if you have solid, easy and intuitive tools to deal with trolls (who may well be using their drivers license names); if you’ve occasionally gotten in flame wars and maybe cyber-kissed and made up; if you’ve shared silly pictures and shared outrage over protestors shot by snipers; and if they’ve become place to be… In other words, online platforms succeed to the degree they become somewhat non-optional to our social existence. (By non-optional, I don’t mean we’d shrivel and die without it, but that our lives are so enriched by the connectivity that we don’t really want to live without the access to each other the platform provides).

Online platforms don’t succeed if, instead, they spend their resources on trying to muzzle Scout Finch. Let her speak, Google+, as Scout or as Jean Louise as she chooses, and it might just be the right business decision as well as the right thing to do.

Updates! Move to UNC, Chapel Hill; Talks at Berkman and Shorenstein Center at Harvard, ASA 2011 presentations

Sorry for the blogging hiatus but I’ve been very busy with a move to … University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill! I’m very excited to be an assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science with an affiliate appointment in the Sociology Department at UNC, Chapel Hill. Please update your emails for me to zeynep at unc dot edu.

A few more dates and updates:

On September 4, I’m going to be giving a talk at the Ars Electronica Festival in Lintz, Austria.

On September 27, I’m going to be giving a talk at the Berkman Center at Harvard (where I’m a fellow this year) on Social Media and Collective Action Dynamics in Autocracies. (Link coming up soon)

October 25, I’ll be the luncheon speaker at the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (it’s a Cambridge year:-). Title and link coming up).

I’m currently at the 2011 American Sociological Association Conference in Las Vegas. I have a presentation on privacy and disclosure related strategic choices of college youth on Saturday at 4.30 (August 20) ; a talk on social media and Arab uprisings at 10:30 on Sunday (Caesars Palace, Forum 14, Pool Level, August 21); and a presentation on “cyberasociality” –i.e. mediated interaction and sociality– on Monday 4.30 (August 22).

Here’s the powerpoint for my first talk titled “A Generation Reacts: Privacy, Disclosure and Strategic Action on Facebook”. (I’ll post the other talks later)

For download:
Zeynep ASA 2011 Privacy

At Slide Share:


I hope to soon catch up with rest of my blogging including finally getting back to the question of social connectivity and Internet in the last post as well as the many other topics which developed over the summer including the UK riots, BART cell phone shutdown, etc. Who said summers were downtime for news?

Bill Keller responds to my objections to his comments about social media

Here’s New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller responding to my points about social media and sociality. A lot of good points here and shows the value of constructive debate. I am going to respond more fully later but I wanted to make it a post of its own to give others also to have a chance to comment and make points.


Dear Zeynep,

I’m sorry to be so slow — at least by Twitter standards — in getting back to you. I thought before I responded I would try to read some of the research you sent my way. Having spent a couple of hours immersed in the material, I’ll give you my non-scientist’s response. But first, pause for a second to review the narrative of the past day, because it illustrates a point I’ve made on several occasions about Twitter — which I love, but don’t worship uncritically.
So, Anthony DeRosa Tweets a link to an interview in which I make a comment about Facebook. You send out a Tweet chiding me on the grounds that my remark is refuted by evidence. I chide you back for not linking to any of the evidence you have in mind. You Tweet links to a mountain of social science. The Twittersphere — before I can respond to you, and I think I can safely say without actually reading the voluminous science you have provided — applauds you for nailing me. Does this fit your definition of an enlightening discussion? Or is it more like fans at a sporting event hooting for their favorite players? Twitter is good for many things, but I’m not convinced it’s an ideal platform for serious conversation.
Just to review, my remark that provoked your response was: “The time you spend keeping up with your 200 Facebook friends is time you are not getting to know someone really well in person.” This is, of course, a difficult statement to challenge. The time you spend doing one thing is, by definition, time you are not spending doing something else. But you clearly did not mean to challenge the literal truth of my remark. As best I can tell, you where challenging what you perceived to be my implication: that Facebook is an impediment to friendship.
Was that my implication? Not really. What I’ve actually said about Facebook — in a column, a blog discussion with Nick Bilton, the interview with DeRosa and elsewhere — can be summed up this way: Social media, like all new things, come with benefits and costs. The benefits are abundant and may well outweigh the costs, but users of new technology should not shy away from discussing the tradeoffs. My sense of Facebook, not based on research but based on some experience and observation, is that for some people Facebook creates a kind of friendship that is more superficial than the kind that grows out of hours spent together in one another’s company. Of course, social media is a way to keep in touch with real friends and expand your network of more casual, less intimate relationships. But it also makes it possible to feel like you have a meaningful social life when, in reality, you are missing something. I did not offer this as a scientific fact but as an observation and a concern.
The studies you sent me had a lot of interesting material, but they did not address my concern. For starters, many of them predate the explosion of social media. A handful are as recent as 2010, but mostly they reference work done in 2006, 2004, 2002, even 1997. They are about “the Internet,” or email, or mobile phone use.
More important, these studies mostly define friendship as “network size.” Typical was this argument from Wang and Wellman:
“Friendship is still abundant. In 2002 and 2007, American adults had on average about 10 friends whom they met or spoke with at least weekly, with a few additional virtual friends and migratory friends. Despite the scholarly cautions and media panics, our data suggest that almost everyone has social ties whom they contact on a regular basis. People’s friendship network sizes vary depending on their Internet use or nonuse. In general, Internet users do not have fewer offline friends than do nonusers, as the panic- stricken media have feared.”
Likewise the Hampton/Sessions 2008 study of “Core Networks, Social Isolation, and New Media” finds no correlation between Internet and mobile phone use and “social isolation” (defined as people who can’t name anyone “with whom you discussed matters that are important to you.”) They report that people who spend time online have more contacts with such people.
Likewise the Boase 2006 study “The Strength of Internet Ties” — which looked both at the number of contacts and the regularity of contacts.
The number and diversity of your friends is not insignificant, but it’s not relevant to my point, which concerns the quality of friendships, not the quantity. I’ve never questioned that social media are excellent for reach. I have suggested that in many cases they are not conducive to depth.
So, I’m happy that my columns and comments have provoked interest and aroused argument. I LIKE argument. But you’re arguing with a point I never made.
And now I have to go earn a pay check.


Interview with Alaa Abd El-Fatah about his Mom, Laila Suief

At Personal Democracy Forum, 2011, Alaa told me this story of his amazing mom, Laila Suief.  She kept pushing him to the frontlines of the battle for Tahrir –even though he had just arrived from South Africa on a 14 hour flight– so that it wouldn’t just be the children of the poor who fought the thugs and the camels. Here’s Alaa telling his story:


Notes on Amina, Facebook and the Reverse Tragedy of Commons: Pseudonymity under Repressive Conditions

As the Internet first spread to the general public, there was great excitement about the potential identity experimentation. Gender, race, identity could, it seemed, all be re-invented online at the strike of a keyboard as, largely due to bandwidth limitations, text-based social environments dominated those days. Plus, unsurprisingly, the [smallish] community which owned computers and was willing to go through the cumbersome set-up of dial-up in order to investigate these new social environments tended to be somewhat atypical. As pioneers, it is probably safe to say that they included an unrepresentative large number of people interested in experimentation. Besides, it seemed all so novel. Thus, the most famous Internet cartoon was born:

ÒOn the Internet, nobody knows youÕre a dog.Ó (two dogs talking) "Internet" capitalized in original

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

To cut a long story short, and to say the least, this dynamic has been reversed. As the Internet became more and more accessible, as more and more ordinary people joined, as increasing bandwidth facilitated sharing of photos and videos, and as it all became mundane and domesticated, Internet has increasingly emerged as an identity constraining medium as it allows for surveillance and triangulation of information about a person like never before. In my 5+ years of research on Facebook use in college, this has become a dominant theme. Transitions and multiple audiences pose novel challenges; audiences which were separated by space (say friends in different colleges or parents) and receded by time (high school friends once you go to college) are increasingly all one’s Facebook friends and the privacy settings and controls do not make it intuitively easy to manage this massive complexity the way space and time helps us manage it in culturally-appropriate ways. Plus, these are not the only digital cookie crumbs we leave; through multiple services, social sharing sites, shopping sites, we increasingly reflect larger and larger parts of our lives in the digital domain, making it easier for someone to piece together who we are, at least somewhat, and for contradictions to be more glaringly evident. This, I had dubbed, grassroots surveillance but it goes by many names. I think I best like Nathan Jurgenson’s coinage: the omniopticon.

And this has real implications for people living under repressive regimes; especially if they are involved in any kind of political activity as hiding is more and more difficult. Under current conditions, it is more true to say that “on the Internet, everyone knows you’re a dog.”

Facilitating this level of surveillance is the fact that Facebook has a strict real-name policy in writing but it is relaxed in implementation because while Facebook has an incentive in making people use their real names, it seems to have no particular interest in kicking out everyone who choose, for whatever reason, to use nicknames or variation of names. (According to my survey of College students, that is at least 10% and likely a lot more considering variations of real names (i.e. FirstName MiddleName as Facebook profile name) and also likely a lot higher in other populations such as high-school students who have more concerns from parents, teachers and college admission boards. Generally, Facebook does not take down pages of even the most obvious nicknames and pseudonyms unless someone complains. Which, of course, means that the real name policy is most dangerous for people who are most vulnerable: those with enemies who will report them.

Enter Wael Ghonim. Ghonim had created a Facebook Page “We are All Khaled Said” in honor of the young man who was brutally beaten to death by the Egyptian police. As we now know, that page played a pivotal role in calling for the revolution in Egypt which started on Jan 25. Less well remembered is that the page almost went offline as Ghonim was using a pseudonym, “El Shaheed”, the Martyr. Someone, presumably the Egyptian state, complained. Facebook promptly took down the page and only restored it after Nadine Wahab, based in D.C., let Wael Ghonim use her identity, with her password and screen name, to administer the page. This may seem like a minor deal but this effectively meant that Nadine herself was perhaps forever exiling herself from her own country, or endangering family members who might still be in Egypt.

So, at this point, dear reader, you might be thinking I am about to continue with an impassioned plea for Facebook to allow for pseudonymity. That is not the case at all. I increasingly believe that the norm towards real(ish) names on Facebook has been a very fertile ground for dissent under autocracies. The close integration between online and offline persona which exists on Facebook is exactly the quality which makes Facebook very useful for reshaping the public sphere under undemocratic (and democratic) conditions; and the push towards real(ish) names helps further that integration.

But let’s now consider the case that is making the headlines, that of pseudonymous blogger Amina Araf (PS: “She” was later revealed as a hoax: here’s the Wikipedia page). As of this writing, we know that her real name is almost certainly not Amina Araf and that the pictures of her on her blog and elsewhere belong to someone else. We also know that her last blog entry was signed by a cousin, claiming she had been kidnapped. There is great consternation among people concerned with human rights in these countries; people are afraid that if this turns out to be a hoax, it will discredit future efforts to build person-to-person links and to raise awareness. On the other hand, what if everything but the name is mostly true, what if she is being tortured in a Syrian jail? Of course, we know for a fact that people are being tortured in Syrian jails regardless of what their names might be; however, it is true that it’s often politically important to have a representative, sympathetic face of repression to rally around—the so-called “panda” of the environmental movement. Rationally, insects and worms going extinct in large numbers are probably a bigger problem than if we lose the pandas who seem to be singularly unsuited to survival: they eat the some of the least indigestible foods short of rocks; they have a very short mating season and, worse, they need a lot of prodding as they seem particularly incompetent and uninterested in the activity. Still, they are adorable, especially as cubs, and WWF will use a panda as its symbol rather than a bee or another insect whose extinction would truly threaten our food supply whereas panda extinction would primarily threaten financial survival of zoos.

So, is Amina Araf the Panda of the Middle East Uprising? An eloquent, gay, out, dissident, attractive young woman who hits pretty much every note which appeals to broader Western publics? And imagine, now, that this Panda is partially fictionalized, as it certainly seems to be, or worse, a hoax, as has been suggested, or even worse, a trap by the state security system, as has already been raised? Frankly, if the last option is true, that this was a trap by the Syrian state to obtain identity information from activists who corresponded with her, I would propose that this really shows the stupidity of the regime because the real threat to an autocracy is not a few activists, who can certainly be detained but a sympathetic, eloquent figure like Amina whose writings about the repression in Syria certainly helped raise awareness abroad about the true nature of the regime. The most fatal threats to autocracies are widespread outrage among their public expressed in a manner visible to their public rather than any particular activist. Still, let us not discount any possibility however counterproductive it might be for the Syrian regime.

This brings me back to question of pseudonymity and Facebook. I certainly believe that there should be spaces, like Twitter and pseudonymous blogs which allow those in danger to express themselves while trying to minimize the repercussions. That said, there is no real safety in technology for activists and, ironically, there is more safety in numbers which the real name policy might actually help. Which means that we are increasingly headed for a future in which we try to both balance and protect pseudonymous spaces for activists, and risk the thread of hoaxes, traps and fiction, as well as identifiable spaces like Facebook, where people might put themselves in grave danger and within easy reach of the state.

First, there is no absolute safety in technology. The Internet is a notoriously unsafe system because it was designed that way; competent hackers are almost always one step ahead of most security systems and some of those hackers work for states and other shadowy organizations. Plus, in many autocracies, the state has access to the physical wire which tends to have a bottleneck under control of whatever the Ministry of [Information | Communication | Surveillance | Censorship | Propaganda] is called in that particular state. Yes, a very technologically-competent activist using the appropriate tools may be able to evade surveillance better; and yes, activists in such states should make it harder for the state to pick them one by one by using all measures available to hide from the state while online; and, yes, please technology companies, you should always implement the well-known safety precautions against hacking, phishing and “man-in-the-middle” attacks such as https, two-step logins and secure systems without the human rights community having to plead with you for such minimal protections.

All this to emphasize: there is no technologically-assured safety for a dissident in a repressive-enough regime. The only safety is visibility, public attention, sometimes international attention and numbers everywhere–in and out of the country. As I have been arguing, a state is a resource-constrained actor. It is not possible for an autocracy to remain stable and arrest a million people. They can certainly arrest a few; they can shed the blood of large numbers. However, the first option they can exercise while preserving stability; the latter requires destabilization which is not what most dictators are longing for. To get that safety in numbers, however, there needs to be political activity in spaces where there are numbers and where the regimes find it harder to flood the place with misinformation, trolls, “sockpuppets” –like the type apparently the Defense Department considered using in weaponized form, I kid you not—and the like. And both real names and online-offline integration guard against these threats and help provide numbers but at the expense of the safety of the activists.

This is a reverse tragedy of the commons. Tragedy of commons is when everyone does what is in their best interest, the commons suffers. (For example, if everyone cheats on their taxes, everyone gets hurts because crumbling infrastructure is bad for everyone). This is the opposite case: to raise awareness, to organize, to oppose regimes, activists are best directed to spaces where pseudonymity is fairly minimal and online/offline integration is high; which, of course, makes it easier for the state to find them. Thus, this is the tragedy of the individual and a reverse tragedy of commons; what is good for the commons is dangerous and potentially deadly for the activist.

Does this mean I support the notion that Facebook should have turned over Wael Ghonim to the Egyptian authorities and shut down the page? Of course, not. The biggest problem here is that Facebook has only a few thousand employees to manage a user base of 600+ million. When the ratios are like that, most processes are automated and peer-enforced. The 10+% nickname users in my sample of college students have fairly little to fear from Facebook deactivating their accounts; however, those most in need of protection have the most fear.

Also, Facebook seems torn. Back in spring, I listened to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg boast to Naval College graduates, where we were both speakers during the Foreign Affairs Conference of 2011, about the role Facebook played in bringing about change in the Middle East. I understand that as a for-profit corporation, they are not necessarily most interested in their new-found role; however, I also understand that Sandberg may well be genuinely proud of the role her company played. Either way, this role is here to stay and Facebook has to develop policies to deal with it in a way consistent with human rights concerns. Besides, online networks are very prone to cascades where users can exit in mass numbers and Facebook exists by the force of the hundreds of millions of people who are willing to stay there. I am sure that they do not want to deal with an event in which Wael Ghonim of, say, Burma or another country, gets tortured to death because of Facebook policies or technological weaknesses.

There is no way for Facebook or any other company to deal with this in a completely automated fashion. Facebook needs to man up and woman up and devote larger, much larger, numbers of people to deal with complaints over real name and seriously consider “case by case” exceptions. I know that some of the executives might think that this will open the floodgates to “fakebooks” but as I am finding in my research, and as others will certainly find in the future, majority prefer to use their real name anyway; and many people are already not in full compliance with the TOS and this poses no threat to Facebeook. Facebook seems to have no problem with that as the online/offline integration provides enough of a grounding to make Facebook a core social network site for many people. There is a large human rights and technological community willing to work with Facebook (also Google– as gmail is a key platform for activists as well—and Twitter and others) to try to find our way through the 21st century in a way which is consistent with human rights. I am not going to write a blanket recommendation here because I think it is important to develop these policies in a broader dialogue; besides I don’t have ready answers.

Finally, the human rights community has to understand that allowing pseudonymous spaces which provide more safety for the individual will eventually create cases like that of Amina Araf where some or all parts of the person will turn out to be fictionalized. There will be hoaxes. There will be traps. On the other hand, there will also be brave, human voices who will blog or be active online pseudonymously under grave danger and then emerge under freedom as we saw with the case of Wael Ghonim and others. Whatever the specifics of the Araf case turn out to be, the danger and repression is very real and there is real value in preserving safer, pseudonymous spaces for activists. On the other hand, as we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, sometimes less safe spaces such as Facebook provide greater political efficacy for the political cause at the expense of safety. Activists everywhere already weigh these considerations as they brave possibility of death and torture; I won’t bother with platitudes to their undeniable courage.

However, the world owes these people both the best chance to hide as well as the optimal conditions to not hide; to that end, technology companies must sit down with human rights groups and others to figure out best ways to navigate this complexity while the human rights community and all concerned citizens must not let their hearts and trust be destroyed if, inevitably, hoaxes and other complicated cases emerge.  Safety, anonymity, trust and political efficacy have no perfect intersection, no optimal solution, no sweet spot. It is all compromise, judgment and balance. Even as the tragedy of the individual gives rise to the benefit of the commons, we must do our best to provide these individuals with maximal space and options to configure this impossible puzzle as they best judge as ultimately, these decisions are on their shoulders as is the price to be paid.