On April 6 in El Mahalla, Egypt, thousands of people showed up for a demonstration in solidarity with striking textile workers to protest skyrocketing food prices. It gave many participants a nostalgic whiff of the bread riots of 1977, but what enabled that unexpected return to the past was a phenomenon of the future: a Facebook group for the event numbering more than 75,000 members. The precedent emboldened activists to start another Facebook group to stage a second protest to coincide with Hosni Mubarak's 80th birthday on May 4.
With tens of thousands flocking to the Facebook page, activists were anticipating another day of triumphal havoc. On May 4, however, the streets of Cairo were quiet.
What happened? Facebook was supposed to be a revolutionary tool of organizers, a powerful new way of tapping a global support network of dissidents and uniting them in opposition to harsh governments. In Egypt, however, the agitators are a disillusioned bunch. The failure of their "click-here activism," says a Cairo human-rights expert who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, has shown "the limitations of social-networking sites as a tool for organizing real-world protests."
This kind of disappointment is common to new technologies, which often seem to change the world and at the same time leave it much like it was before. As the Egyptian activists learned, a social network, just by virtue of being online, can't always hold together a "real world" movement. Facebook creates opportunities—it gives people the chance to write their own golden ticket—but it is not to be confused with the tickets themselves. So what exactly is Facebook good for, and what are its limitations?
When what you want is exponential growth for your cause, nothing beats Facebook: the network is designed for a good idea to spread faster and farther than a single person can ever fathom. Think of a Facebook group as a growing body of water. For that water to accumulate pressure, it needs more infrastructure—the better constructed the conduit, the more directed and powerful the flow. While 19-year-old Alex Bookbinder's group supporting Burma's persecuted monks swelled to more than 300,000 members, the organizers sought additional channels for their cause. Partnering with formal advocacy groups Amnesty International and the Burma Campaign UK, they successfully coordinated marches worldwide last fall, sending thousands onto the streets in London, Paris, Melbourne, Seoul, Taipei, Vienna and Washington, D.C. Mark Farmaner, who directs the Burma Campaign UK, affirmed that the Facebook activists transformed the global effort: "They're able to do things that we can't."
At its core, Facebook is built on information exchange, or, as founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg will tell you, "relationships." When it comes to solidifying already existing relationships, it can be invaluable. This was exactly what a Canadian group of small investors needed. "Canaccord and Other ABCP Clients," popularly known as "grannies on Facebook," lost their retirement savings when their brokers blew their investments on asset-backed commercial paper. Their Facebook group helped them share grievances and make an informed argument. In April, "300 raging grannies" crashed a financial-restructuring meeting in Vancouver, reported Brian Hunter, the group's creator, where their opponents "got their heads handed to them." Canaccord and other investment brokers pledged to reimburse the grannies in full.
The strategic brilliance of Facebook lies in the fact that it is a combination of the cyberworld and the real world. When Facebook revolutions work, it's not because activists manage to bridge the social network and the real world. Facebook is not a cyberworld; it is the real world expanded on the Web. "Facebook is there to help people share information the same way they do in the real world," says Zuckerberg. "On Facebook, these real connections become more efficient and people get more value out of all their relationships." Although the groups themselves are composed of real people, the connection happens in cyberspace—with lightning speed and no regard to physical boundaries.
If the basic unit of the Internet is the byte, or character, then Facebook's unit is the individual—creative, dynamic, proactive. This unit itself is something of eminent value, upon which Facebook can trade ad infinitum with every connection made, every blip of activity broadcast across the network.
Facebook may be the messenger, but it's the users who write the message. In fact, they can write entire applications and run them on a platform that is, by design, connected to millions of people, of like and unlike minds.
Clearly the Egyptian authorities recognized the organizational power of Facebook, which is why 27-year-old Ahmed Maher Ibrahim, an organizer of the Facebook group for the failed strike, was taken to a police station for 12 hours and beaten up. At one point, officers demanded that Ibrahim hand over the password to the Facebook group. How much the authorities understood about Facebook, and ultimately whether they'll be able to stem its use as a tool of activists, are hard to say. When Facebook delivers a message that brings Egyptians out into the streets, we may find out.