Monday, January 31, 2011

Protests in Egypt: drinking ( or not ) the social media Kool-Aid

By now, all of you know I'm a firm believer in the usefulness of social media in emergencies, both for emergency information purposes and for situational awareness.

However, every so often, I take a deep breath to ensure that I don't get too comfortable aboard the SM bandwagon. As social media gathers steam and has now reached critical mass for emergency managers (see my previous post), it's easy to overlook the limitations of existing social media platforms and mobile technologies.

These last few days, with the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, a lot of attention has been focused on the role of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for example. Some people are tempted to call these popular movements and protests ... social media revolutions ... It's partly true but I believe it's a big overreach to think that SM alone resulted in these popular uprisings.

With that, I agree with some commentators who think the role of social media has been overblown:

Social media can be a major force for the democratization of communications certainly .... but there are still limits to its power in the political sphere.
Failures of social media in the Egyptian uprising

So where is the balance? Well, social media provides great mobilization tools and tactical coordination for popular movements. But they're only that ... a channel, a tool ... where people share information and what they think about a particular situation focus on specific platforms ... is to forget the true nature of social media ... the one that's now a part of our society and will continue to remain so: we now have the ability to share ...

How we chose to exercise that is up to us ... what i had for dinner is not very interesting to most people  ... yet some people feel the need to share that kind of info ... others see a bit more potential for SM and share more "profound" items ... such as a common cry for liberty and freedom ... in the end's the message that counts ... not the channel itself ... but having the ability to coalescence common thoughts and aspirations remains what's relevant about social media.

And that's why the Internet and social media are perceived as threats by authoritarian regimes.
Silencing the Internet in Egypt

That hasn't totally silenced Egyptians and reporters who are still finding ways to tell their stories:
Reporters and social media

Egyptians have different tools to try to go around the government's attempts to curtail their "digital rights" with the help of large corporations and volunteer groups alike:
Tweeting ... one phone call at a time ...

What are some of the links we can establish between what's happening in the Arab world and emergency management?  A few things perhaps:

  • crowdsourcing is a reality ... as a political mobilization tool or as an emergency response capability ... the merging of social media and mobile technology gives EM practitioners new situational awareness, new tools to base decisions on, new channels to communicate and engage with their audiences
  • social media has its limitations ... Internet access can be limited or inexistent ... social media platforms unavailable ... can't put all your eggs in one basket ... you still have to multiply the channels you need to reach all your audiences ... although social media now offers the most efficient and immediate way to do it.
  • Social media is now a primary source of news gathering for traditional media organizations ... they monitor emerging crises, ongoing incidents and your response to these ...
So, I remain a bit wary of the Kool-Aid offered by enthusiastic supporters of the omnipotence of social media ... temperance seems the order of the day ...

But there are beneficial lessons for emergency management in what's going on in Egypt and elsewhere:

Looking forward to your comments!

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