The Flip-side of Facebook

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Screenshot of Facebook WorldIn the wake of the news that a Russian investment company had coughed up $200 million for a 2 percent stake in Facebook (and yes, that amounts to an estimated $10 billion value for the whole thing), and that Facebook itself had reached the coveted 200 million user mark (making it the 5th largest “country” in the world, no less), I thought it appropriate to have a look at how it is being used in the world beyond the college dorm and my living room.

For to think that Facebook is only good for easy messaging, picture-sharing and spying (and yes, even self-discovery through such wonderfully insightful tests as ‘Which city would you be?’) would be a grave mistake indeed. Outside the world of highspeed broadband-lines and trendy presidential campaigns, Facebook is attracting more and more users from the fringes of the social-networking-society; from unexpected sources and people who cannot organize or interact on more traditional forums. It even has the Pope involved (but that’s a whole different story).

I present to you the flip-side of Facebook.

As the picture above shows, Facebook users have spread fast and far across the globe. What started off as an elite-school networking site in the US has become a global phenomenon with exponential growth in developing countries, even countries with governmental controls on cyber-activity. Facebook is growing particularly fast in South America and the Caribbean, while continuing to dominate the internet-using habits of European and American users.

But what about those fringes? The realization that Facebook is not only used by more-or-less well-off middle class kids (and now their parents) in the West and beyond, might strike some of you as obvious. Really looking into the phenomenon as a whole, however, makes you realize that some very interesting things are happening in this world, far beyond the confines of its original design. In fact, in countries like Egypt and Iran Facebook activity is so intense that it ranks among the top 10 most visited sites in the Arab world as a whole, and top 3 in Egypt. While Iran has nearly 150 000 Facebook members, Egypt has almost 800 000. And they are not only using it for friend-making or love-seeking. They are organizing online.

In Syria, although the government briefly blocked Facebook in 2007, online activity around politically sensitive issues has gathered pace at an incredible speed. New groups challenging governmental policies and defending freedom of speech and organization are springing up every day. In Egypt numerous youth groups, most notably the April 6 Facebook group formed to support general strikes last year, are challenging the governmental ban on political debate and criticism, even the ban on public gatherings. Its membership grew to nearly 80 000 within days of being set up, showing the desire of many young Egyptians to debate and challenge both the narratives of the Mubarak government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Iran, this past Tuesday, the authorities brought back Facebook after a 3-day block. Opposition candidates allege that President Ahmadinejad did so in order to silence the youth groups that have been set up in support of Mirhossein Mousavi, an opposition candidate. The targeting of the crucial youth bloc through the medium of social media was clearly a threat to the state’s media monopoly in Iran. But do these dictators really have something to fear?

Ethan Zuckerman from Harvard has called this the “cute-cat theory of digital activism”, in other words that, although the ability of young people to debate, organize, even campaign on Facebook (either in opposition to the government or sometimes in support of it) does threaten the information-monopoly of many a dictatorship- and in the longer term might really impact the the political awareness-levels and action-thresholds of younger generations- they cannot simply shut down such sites that are still primarily used for more mundane purposes. If they do so, they risk radicalizing people and groups that are simply on Facebook to discuss which kind of furry cat they like the most.

Are we then witnessing the birth of a virtual civil-society in the unlikeliest of platforms, or will this potentially powerful world of dissent on Facebook remain in the fringes after all?

2 replies on “The Flip-side of Facebook”

The virtual civil society you are mentioning is not a peripheral phenomenon. It is ongoing, happening and spreading. And it can potentially pass from being virtual into being real.

Authoritarian regimes are known for their mistrust. But the absurdity of being bothered by even the most innocent acts of expression has its limits. Discussing which furry cat one likes should really not come to upset any state.

And that’s where the hope lies. Ephemeral topics discussed in the social-networking-society create the needed magical shield that protects this emerging civil-society, allowing it to develop.

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