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Americans Online: Facebook and the Egyptian Protests

February 4, 2011

If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s a populist uprising. Or, at least, populist uprisings with the end goal of instating democratic governments abroad (given our history, I guess it’s not too hard to see why). So, with protesters taking to the streets in Egypt demanding the resignation of president Hosni Mubarak, American public attention seems ripe for the plucking.

And plucked it has been—stories and op-eds about the protests have been on the front page of just about every major news outlet since they started. So, now that we’re all watching, it’s time to do what every good American in the 21st century would do: talk about it on the internet.

Over the past few days, I’ve noticed an “event” popping up a lot in my Facebook feed—people I know are “attending” a “virtual ‘march of millions’” to show their “solidarity with Egyptian protesters.” When I first saw the event, I thought, “Wow, where and when is it? Maybe I’ll go.” but then I noticed the word “virtual.” I also read the event’s description:

This is an ONLINE event. You do not need to be in Egypt or attend a particular march take part in this event. By clicking “I’m attending” you are simply showing your support for the Egyptian cause online.

And I got a little confused. Especially because a few days before that I remembered reading that the Egyptian government had pretty much turned off the internet. So the protesters (who are out in the streets risking life and limb) can’t get online to see this virtual march (which, as the description makes clear, you can “attend” while at home in your underpants). So there’s no way of them seeing the “solidarity” that these Facebookers are attempting to show. And I said to myself, “Self, I am perplexed. What’s the point of this ‘event’ when the people it’s showing solidarity with won’t even know about it?” And, in a classic lightbulb kinda moment, I answered, “Well, Self, maybe it’s not necessarily about the people in Egypt.”

And if it’s not about people in Egypt, then it seems reasonable to assume that it’s for people here… people with internet access and Facebook profiles who can see what their friends are up to. Of course, I’m sure some of the people “attending” this “event” wish they could be there in Tahrir Square with the protesters, helping in any way they can. At the very least, I’m sure everyone involved sympathizes with the protesters’ cause—as the event’s description says, this is intended as an online display of support. But online displays of support (as anyone who’s thought about whether or not they should list their guilty pleasures under their “favorite movies” can affirm) are as much about the supporter as the supportee. What with everything on Facebook being public and all, it allows us to tell people exactly what kind of individual we are based on the things we like and the causes we support.

So what kind of individual does attending this “virtual march” allow us to be? Note how the title uses the language of direct activism. First off, it implies actual, physical presence. It’s a “march,” an “event,” not merely a Facebook group you can join. It suggests that people are going somewhere, doing something, performing some act—but they’re not, really, beyond clicking their mouse. And let’s be honest. The stakes of clicking “I’m attending” are actually kind of low, especially compared to the stakes protesters face when they choose to step out of their houses and take to the streets.

Still, using the language of political activism and direct action has different consequences for identity. The types of people that join groups are not necessarily the types of people that go to marches. Groups have all kinds of members, with various degrees of adherence to and passion for the group’s objectives. But marches are different. If you’re marching for something, you’re probably not going to be blasé about it. So “attending” this “event” says “not only do I support the Egyptian protesters, I’m really serious about it.” The use of words common in populist politics, like “solidarity,” further drives home the presentation of a particularly activist identity. Facebookers attending this “event,” like many Americans, have had their imagination captured by the events unfolding in Egypt—and they want you to know it.

If you want to know more:

  • My argument in this post, along with most of my limited understanding of what happens on social networking sites, comes directly out of Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” My brief discussion of how certain words like “solidarity” and “march” are linked to populist politics draws on the notion of indexicality, which tons of scholars like Elinor Ochs, Barbara Johnstone, and Michael Silverstein (to name but a few) have written extensively about. Finally, I’m not a scholar of human-computer interaction or online networks, so while I tried to stay away from any sweeping claims about stuff I don’t understand (which is hard for me to do), a little clemency on that front would be appreciated.
  • It may seem odd that I wrote about a relatively small-scale thing like this, especially in reference to such a globally important event, and even more so if this is the first you’ve heard about the Facebook thing. But as of press time over 600,000 people are “attending,” so it’s definitely getting some attention. And even if no one you know is “attending,” it’s still a good gateway into a discussion about what we do on sites like this.
  • If I came off as unduly snarky in this post, it wasn’t my intent. Sometimes it’s hard for me to not get frustrated over what seem like low-stakes gestures on social networking sites that claim to be activism (remember when everyone changed their Facebook profile picture to a cartoon and this was allegedly going to somehow combat child abuse?), but it helps to remind myself of exactly what I said here—that these things are every bit as much about the people doing them as they are about the causes they reference. As someone who has a hard time thinking of fewer than 40 bands that count as his “favorite music,” I know I’m in no position to talk.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bertie B permalink
    February 7, 2011 8:35 pm

    Other than join a “virtual march” and writing letters to our Government what do you suggest we do? I did both..I would love to do more.
    I want the Egyption PEOPLE to know all of us Americans are not selfish and unconcerned even though we are thousands of miles away. Everyone willing to fight for Democracy deserves it!!!

    They are also in my prayers!

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      February 7, 2011 9:43 pm

      Well, it’s not that I’m necessarily saying that we shouldn’t “attend” this online march, and I certainly didn’t mean to impugn other acts (i.e. writing letters or prayer) in the process. In fact, my whole argument here that a rhetorical act like writing letters to the government is by nature a different kind of rhetorical act than attending an online march. For a few reasons.

      Writing letters to the government can (hopefully) have some tangible effect in influencing policy. The virtual march is ostensibly intended to show solidarity with the protesters, but they can’t see it because the Egyptian government is blocking their internet access. This means that unfortunately the protesters might not know what Americans think of the protests until they get back online–which probably won’t be until all of this is over. In a way, I see that as a further testament to their bravery, but it also means that the online march is, in a way, rhetorically ineffective if the goal is to let Egyptians know how you feel.

      But, and this is the crust of the biscuit here, the online march IS rhetorically effective if you consider the point to be to let your peers, family, friends, etc. know how you feel about the protests–they’re the ones that are going to see it anyway.

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