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People Power: Sharing Hearts and Minds

June 29, 2011 - 0 Comments

By Steven Shepard, Contributing Columnist

Three weeks ago I took a taxi from downtown Toronto to Pearson International airport, on my way back to my home in Vermont. My driver, a genial, soft-spoken and well-educated man from Cairo who spoke halting but charming English (far better than my mastery of his language), carried on a lively conversation with me during the 90 minutes it took us to drive through rush hour traffic to the airport.

In fact, because of our conversation, we have been in regular e-mail contact since, carrying on the conversation thread that we started in his taxi.

When I hopped in the car, we chatted for a few minutes before getting to the Highway 401 parking lot (the local name for the 401, which rivals the Los Angeles 405 freeway for its level of automotive paralysis). He sighed, and then he asked me what I was doing in Toronto.

I told him that I had been giving a talk about trends in the telecom, IT and media industries, and he quickly jumped into the conversation with both feet. “I am from Egypt where we have the mobile telephone,” he began. “It has changed everything for my country — business, culture, opportunity, the economy. But now it is doing something more important than all of those things out together.”

Puzzled, I asked him what that was. Smiling, he turned around in his seat (we were stopped, thankfully) and said, “Your technology has brought hope to my people. Before, we had no way of sharing our hearts or our minds without a great deal of personal risk and fear. Mobile calling, Facebook, Twitter have given my people a power they never had before, and even though the government shut down the Internet, by the time they did we had done our damage. The truth was known and Mubarak could not prevail.”

I thought about his comments at length, at the passion that this man conveyed to me about the importance of social media and the role of the underlying network. Did Facebook and Twitter bring about the social revolution in Egypt, and, increasingly, in other countries? Of course not. Did they catalyze events? Of course they did.

The Global Phenomenon of Citizen Journalism

The same thing happened several years ago in Iran during the elections that continued Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. The elections, widely believed to be fraudulent, led to riots and protests in the streets, which were in turn met by violent resistance from the Republican Guard. People died. But this time, the whole world was watching.

Thanks to the people in the streets who were tweeting about what they were seeing and posting pictures, transparency reigned, and the regime could not deny its own actions. So important was Twitter during those events that the U.S. State Department contacted Twitter and asked them to delay running maintenance on its systems, because to do so would mean bringing Twitter down, and at that moment, Twitter was the only source of credible intelligence about the goings-on in Iran because the journalists were locked in their hotels and prohibited from reporting about events in the streets.

That was when I knew that Twitter was much more than, “I’m sitting on the patio.”

Egypt proved that networks, and the applications that run across them, can bring astounding transparency, and people with conviction, when armed with the weapons of communication, can make great things happen.

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