Tweeting Egypt

The Social Media of the Egyptian Uprising

#Imperialism: Social Media’s Western Origins

Most social media sites were developed in the United States by Americans with English speakers as their first intended audience. Twitter and YouTube both came out of California. Facebook’s origin story coming out of Cambridge is a well-known story, having sprung out of Harvard as part of some alleged practical joke and clearly destined for an American audience. YouTube is also rumored to have shady origins. It started as a dating site called Tune In Hook Up. While there is no way to say if such a site would have been successful in Egypt, it is fair to say that most would find it does not fit with the moral values traditionally upheld in Egypt and other Muslim nations. The site adopted the name YouTube in 2005. Clearly it is a malleable medium that has grown and changed since it was Tune In Hook Up. It continues to host sexually-charged content, but it no longer targets a dating-based audience, and less controversial content abounds.

International Studies Professor Nivien Saleh’s analysis of the history of the Internet supports the idea that these Western origins would affect Egypt negatively. In her book, Third World Citizens and the Information Technology Revolution, Saleh writes that the Internet began in America before spreading to Western Europe, the two areas that then were able to set the rules as to how this global information exchange would operate (2010). The G-7 countries (the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan) met in 1995 to discuss the goals of the Internet, without inviting representatives from other parts of the world (Saleh 2010). Clearly this excluded Egypt, but worse, it left the entire Arab world and other groups out of the process. Saleh says the governments of these countries excluded other actors in order to protect the interests of their large corporations (2010). They then made it clear that if excluded nations did not observe the standards the developed nations had set, they would be left out of this lucrative industry. Clearly sites like Twitter were created independently from one another so were not inherently privileging one country over another, but like the U.S. government, the creators designed their site with a Western audience in mind, as evidenced by some of its limitations.

It is unclear what the effect of using tools from a Western background could have had on the uprising. Did the Western origins of these websites in any way foreign-ify the organizational actions of the January 25 movement? At an appearance at American University, Egypt scholar Steven Cook said it was an interesting question but one for which he did not have an answer. April 6 organizer Waleed Rashed could not think of any problems that he had with Facebook, though he did mention the original irksome matter of having hashtags in Roman characters.

When the government shut down the Internet in Egypt, Google and Twitter teamed up with a service called SayNow to allow users in Egypt to tweet using their phones. The service had previously existed, but Google and Twitter made it more readily available. It was a service accessible worldwide, but PCMag.com linked the new effort to the Egyptian plight. Why did Google jump on these efforts? Might it have had something to do with the fact that one of its own employees, Wael Ghonim, was one of the protesters kidnapped by Mubarak’s regime? It is impossible to say for certain, and Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Perhaps the companies’ motives are less important than a question of consequences. Should Google and Twitter be cheered for innovating to aid the protesters? Or should they have left the people to work around the repression their government inflicted on them?

Based on their writing about other modes of communication, it is probable that Jon W. Anderson and Dale F. Eickelman would see Twitter and Facebook as utile means for an overhaul of the social order and creation of a new Egypt. Writing in 1999 – before Facebook or even MySpace was created – they said the “proliferation of media and means of communication have multiplied the possibilities for creating communities and networks among them, dissolving prior barriers of space and distance and opening new grounds for interaction and mutual recognition” (Anderson & Eickelman 1999, p. 3). Even in his more recent writing, where he focused on practical implementation of the Internet rather than its theoretical implications, Anderson emphasized that he felt this aspect of the technology was relevant (2011, p. 20). The case of Google, Twitter and SayNow clearly illustrates a point Eickelman makes later in the book from the 1990s: that when the government shuts the door on one mode of communication, it forces society to make a dissenting medium. The only question here is, if these Western companies had not banded together to create the SayNow service, what other means would the Egyptian people have devised? Or would that have been the end of the Egyptian uprising?

While the purposes of these sites certainly do not exclude foreign audiences, some inequitities of language and access do exist. The first example of this in terms of Twitter is its system of verifying accounts. The company itself has a verificiation service that it uses to tell readers if an account definitively belongs to the person it claims to represent. Twitter decides who to verify, however, and most of those figures tend to be aimed at an American audience. For example, Gloria SteinemEminem and Rick Santorum all have verified accounts, denoted with a light blue check mark next to their Twitter handles. Ahmed Maher, Ramy Essam and Alaa Abdel-Fattah do not. This becomes a problem in terms of how those tweeting in Egypt during the uprising could establish credibility.

Another example of the Western bias is seen in hashtags. At least at the beginning of the uprising, Twitter only allowed hashtags in Roman characters. Imagine for just a moment that the tables were turned, and Americans voluntarily and prolifically used a technology that forced them to write using Arabic letters. You can then see why this would be so exclusionary and have a profound effect on who could use Twitter effectively.

In her book, Third World Citizens and the Information Technology Revolution, Nivien Saleh describes the intricate ways in which foreign developers became involved with Egyptian communication technology over the past four decades. Read more about the historical relationship of Egypt and the Internet here. To put it simply, Saleh says that the process of integrating telecommunication technology into third world countries prior to the entry of the internet “disrespected the autonomy of peripheral citizens disproportionately” (2010, p. 53). She argues that the same thing happened again when the Internet was introduced outside the United States starting in 1994 (2010, p. 20).

From this bit of history, we can see how foreign technology companies have been entrenched in the very regime that the protesters sought to overthrow and actively participated in the marginalization of Egyptians. It is important, then, to consider that social media institutions that helped dramatically advance the movement are also at least geographically associated with these foreign entities and perhaps this marginalization.

One comment on “#Imperialism: Social Media’s Western Origins

  1. Pingback: ‘An Amazing New Way to Blog About Your Cat’ – Why Twitter Really Matters « Tweeting Egypt

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