Egypt – social media was not a silver bullet

Published by Tony Quinlan on

I’ve just seen another article about how social media caused change in Egypt. (I’m not going to link to it – or any of the others – as I don’t want to encourage the causal thinking behind it.) The other element I’ve seen mentioned as important in the Egypt changes earlier this year is that “everyone stayed on message.”

Now, the former element had a role to play – but it’s too tempting to assign it too much importance in the piece. The second – staying on message – is just wishful thinking on the part of someone who wants to convince their salary-payer to stick to the script – which is a dangerous and seriously wrong interpretation that doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny of the facts.

There are two important elements here that intertwine:

  • Social media increased the level of interaction between people and groups – creating favourable conditions for conversations and information to flow quickly and to wider audiences than was previously the case. It created an echo chamber that would respond to whatever messages started to resonate with the people interacting in the networks. In that sense, it seems to be a preferable, but neither necessary nor sufficient condition for mass change.

    One of the products of a spread of mass social media in Egypt was creating an environment in which events that were small-scale could serve as catalysts to the change. There were probably many potential catalysts, but notice is usually only given to the ones that actually take hold and trigger events. Any full-scale analysis of the Egyptian situation would need to look at huge volumes of data, paying particular attention to the outliers – to events that were briefly talked about but petered out before taking hold on a large scale.

  • Messages – in fast-changing, diverse situations like a fermenting country – are rarely designed, planned and executed. Or at least, they may be, but that’s rarely a successful strategy. The second fallacy I mentioned above arises from looking at an end result (i.e. an apparent clear message*) and thinking “How was that successful?”. That thought, for people who spend their lives planning communications, leads to the assumption that the communication was planned – and that everyone stuck to the message. (It’s tempting, but roughly equates to assuming that life is the product of “Intelligent Design“.)

    Instead, I offer this: in the vast, inter-connected echo chamber mentioned above, many and diverse messages appeared from thousands of different people. Some were picked up and re-transmitted, increasing the echo factor and making them louder. As this happened, weaker messages that did not have the same appeal diminished, making the dominant messages seem even louder – increasing the number of people hearing them. At some point, these messages reached critical mass, drowning out other messages (which would still have been being generated, but would have had a higher bar to reach in order to be heard) – and outsiders observing the system at that point would note that “everyone is on message.”

While this doesn’t apply everywhere – bounded applicability after all – I do think that if you’re facing a dynamic, fast-moving complex environment, planning can only show you roughly what not to do and broadly what might be worth saying. More specific than that, I don’t believe that analysis and planning can take you.

Instead, I think a better, faster and more effective route is to take an evolutionary approach – diverse (but coherent) vehicles and messages, fast feedback loops to show what effect is being had and then rapid adaptation. Not with the goal of finding a single message or a best practice, but to develop a constantly evolving, more resilient approach.

*Which I would disagree with at the most basic level – the appearance of a clear message is more down to misinterpretation from a non-Egyptian cultural perspective, missing nuances and differences in varying communications.