Things are moving so fast in Egypt that it’s hard to get any sort of perspective on events. News studios are filled with pundits comparing it to the fall of the Soviet eastern bloc at the end of the eighties, the fall of the Shah in ’79 or even the Russian Revolution.
The role of social media such as Twitter and Facebook seems central (as in the recent Tunisian uprisings) and the Egyptian authorities virtually admitted as much by blocking the internet and mobile phone networks. Yet this only had the effect of intensifying the visibility of the protests as people simply took to the streets instead. The speed with which the protests have since spread and the revolutionary fervour of the protesters both indicate that Egyptian society is in the grip of a socially contagious phenomenon too powerful to contain. What does it tell us marketers about how ideas take root and spread?
Over the past decade there’s been a much-increased interest in the social mechanisms by which ideas spread – particularly as the ubiquity of social media has made ‘buzz’ such a seductive strategy – for marketers and politicians alike.
Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’ theory drew mostly from the work of social network theorists, who believed that many of the social trends they observed were the work, not of invisible forces (as social objectivists like Durkheim and Marx argued), but of highly connected and influential individuals within society. Keller and Berry’s The Influentials focused on the power of word-of-mouth and, in particular, the commercial value of recommendation by highly influential individuals within society. And Mark Earls' ‘ Herd’ emphasises the (almost irresistible) power of word-of –mouth and peer-to-peer recommendation in propelling ideas through society.
Yet it is one thing to say that social contagion happens because of word-of-mouth, but quite another to say that contagion is caused by it. Can the answer to the question, “Why did this idea spread?” really be: “because people had conversations”? And does the use of social media explain the current Egyptian uprising any better than, say, the the fax machine explains the fall of the Berlin Wall or the printing press explains the Russian Revolution?
We don’t spread an idea simply because someone recommends it (although it helps), nor do we take to the streets and protest simply because other people do (although, again, it might embolden us to do so). Remember that we’re talking here about behaviour that can get you killed - not about posting some new viral ad, or tweeting about a sexy new app for the iPhone! Mubarek’s security forces are amongst the most brutal in the Middle East and no one will join a demonstration, or even send a dissident email lightly. The reason people protest so bravely is because, as in Eastern Europe in ’89-’90, they share a visceral emotional detestation of the regime that oppresses them. It is this shared emotional response that facilitates the socially contagious wave of protests we’re witnessing.
And the flipside of detestation is often inspiration. What fires people up to demand change are often abstract concepts – sometimes of freedom and democracy, but also - as in Tehran in ’79 - ideas of religious fundamentalism and theocracy. In the early stages of revolutions, ‘change’ is a sufficiently inspiring and amorphous ideal to unite disparate groups of liberals, democrats and zealots in a quest to bring down a hated regime. Unfortunately, it’s also true that, once regime change achieved, it’s often the most ruthless who win out – such as Lenin in October 1917 or Khomeni in 1979.
But let’s stay optimistic and pray that events in Egypt demonstrate the power of ideas to inspire, energise and unite populations in a shared quest for a better and more open society.