Monday
January 31
2011

Scott Anderson

NextThought Monday: Friending Egypt, the True Value of Social Media

At least half of all Egyptians subsist on less than $2 a day. And when mass demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere began – at least formally – last week, Facebook and Twitter helped bring poverty and a host of other deep seated social, political and economic grievances to the fore. When last Tuesday’s protests began, more than 90,000 people had signed up on a Facebook page “framed by the organizers as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment” reported The New York Times.

By then, Egypt’s economic ills – from the urban centers to the rural countryside -were under the international microscope. When the government convinced or cajoled the major telecom providers into shutting down the Internet – and with it Facebook and Twitter – the proverbial horse had already left the barn.

The speed and scale of Egypt’s protests nearly overshadowed the World Economic Forum at Davos, (which despite rising concerns over economic inequality worldwide, still had some good news regarding poverty reduction worth noting). Ironically, just days before Davos and the demonstrations in Egypt, Facebook’s role in facilitating social change was being highlighted by the social network’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Facebook “gives everyone a real identity and an individual voice. I studied economics as an undergraduate and we learned about the ’invisible victim,’ the victim you don’t know and can’t comprehend,” Sandberg told Fortune for post before the conference. “… On Facebook people have made personal connections that have led to donors saving lives. Part of what we do is create an opportunity to make the world’s invisible victims visible.”

Interestingly, Sandberg spoke at a Davos panel titled “Handling Hyper-connectivity: How should governments and businesses operate in a hyper-connected world?”

One could argue Facebook and social media are merely the plumbing, much like a phone line, connecting people. But as Sandberg indicates and the Egyptian situation illustrates, there’s much more to it than that. Unlike a passing news story that can be easily dismissed by its relative remoteness, social media connects us directly to the news. For instance, “a friend of a friend on Facebook was injured in the protests,” as one Facebook friend of mine mentioned last week. (I’m sure many of our readers have much stronger connections).

For yet another stark reminder of these growing connections, check out the Facebook map of relationships (above), which emerged last month. As its creator Paul Butler explained, the map is a “social graph of 500 million people.” (It should be noted that this is not the definitive map of all social media, as other countries, such as Russia and Brazil prefer different networks over Facebook). Still, it’s reminiscent of the two Koreas satellite maps: the North with but a scant dash of illumination around Pyongyang and the South with the Seoul area ablaze with lights – and what that means for income and commerce, to say nothing of basic freedoms.

Social media’s long-term value will not be just about fueling protests. Its true worth is and will continue to be building bridges, and at least from the NextBillion perspective, helping to create and fund businesses, develop economies and pull people out of poverty – thereby limiting the reasons for disenfranchisement in the first place. That revolution will not come as quickly.

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