By Andrew Bossone
Alexandria, Egypt–Social media’s influence on revolution is a hot issue in the press and also among young people.
When Egypt’s interim Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq recently stepped down from his post, the announcement came out not on television or in a press conference, but on Facebook.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — now ruling Egypt — made the announcement on its official Facebook page, which has more than 700,000 followers.
At the recent Arab Youth Conference at the Library of Alexandria, technology’s role in Egypt’s revolution certainly was not lost on the crowd. Even the Library itself, which was built “to recapture the spirit of the great ancient library with the tools and the means of the 21st century,” according to director Ismail Serageldin, values the importance of technology. (Read my earlier blog post: Library of Alexandria Hosts Youth Summit for Post-Revolution Discussion.)
The role of social media in the uprisings could be debated at length. It certainly aided the protestors in their cause. See this video of my Twitter feed from the early morning of January 28, the first widespread day of protesting in Egypt:
Many people are looking at the future of the media, and see social media as having an important role. Now could be a new period to integrate social and traditional media, bringing the media buzzword of “convergence” back into the foray of journalism.
“What happened in Egypt is that we managed to plug this gap between social and traditional media because you had some videos that started on social media and then the traditional TV like Al Jazeera, BBC, which took it from the Internet and screened it with less quality,” said Karim El-Shenawy, who produces low budget films for social media.
“I think it’s a new era of integration,” he added.
The conference itself was organized through social media networks. When the organizers had to cancel the original date because of the events in Egypt, they set up an online poll to see if the new date was suitable to attendees.
At the event young people from many countries in North Africa and the Middle East expressed a desire to stay in touch online and use social media to organize their ideas together. Not everyone, however, was concerned with making online groups.
“People here are talking about politics and about making Facebook groups, but we need to have a minimum wage,” said Mohannad Hassanien. “There are people on the street working eight, 12, 16 hours a day and they can’t make enough money to feed their families.”
The widespread use of social media networks presents an interesting challenge for traditional media outlets. Many have incorporated Twitter feeds and Youtube videos into their published material.
Just as young people at the conference showed a desire simply to share their voices, using social media has been an important outlet to express themselves freely. A mash up of traditional media and social media could eventually be a means to spread alternative voices on a large scale.
“The presence of young people as role models in mainstream media is lacking,” said Joe Khalil, a professor at Northwestern University’s campus in Qatar, who did not attend the conference.
“The kind of messages that young people are making are much more than what is permissible in mainstream media,” he added.
Similarly, David Munir, who runs a newspaper in Lebanon produced by young people, Hibr, said that young people want to have their voices included in the media, but free from restrictive censorship.
“We want to know how to remove that filter to have the young people create the content directly, to allow young people to have their voices unencumbered by an adult voice [in traditional media],” he said at a lecture in Beirut.
Munir said that the media should still incorporate an editorial process. He acknowledged that filters are needed at the very least to maintain standards of quality.
“Young people can be the filter of other people and make it a collaborative process,” he said.
In addition to creating the newspaper, Hibr also spends considerable time training young people on the process of content creation, including clinics on plagiarism and tying in students’ school projects to the paper itself. It encourages young people to start independently producing content, in what Munir calls “micromedia outlets.”
“We don’t see them as competition. We want to connect them.”
Social and traditional media integration still needs some time. In the interim, some young people have more pressing issues on their minds.
“We need to ensure that the momentum of the revolution will continue until we achieve what we demanding: a democratic country, a powerful country, a just country, with no oppression and no dictatorship, and to join the free world,” said Muhammad Khallaf, a medical student from Egypt.
Andrew Bossone is a regular contributor to National Geographic Daily News.