The Real World

March 2011
The Psychologist, 24 (3), 157.

Towards the end of January Hosni Murbarak sat in comparative security and those who opposed him refrained from expressing themselves for fear of repression. As we write at the beginning of February, a new cabinet combined with a commitment to stand down in September no longer suffice and protestors beat effigies of Murbarak with their shoes. We don’t know how things will turn out. But we do know that momentous transformations have already occurred.

So what exactly has changed in the Egyptian population and in Egyptian society? We doubt very much that people have discovered anything about Murbarak that they didn’t know before, or that they revile him any more today than they did at the start of the week. It is much more that they now know that they are not alone in what they think. More importantly, they now know that others feel as strongly as they do and will be prepared to act on it. If they shout ‘Murbarak must go’ they will not face the security forces alone. They will not speak as individuals but as – and with – ‘the people’. Before the ‘voice of the people’, the international community, the army, and even the tyrant must pause and take stock.

And why has this change come about? Three terms stand out: Tunisia, social media, Tahrir Square.

The collective protests that swept Ben Ali from office in another North African Arab country provided a tangible model to Egyptians. It allowed them to imagine the possibility of solidarity and of victory. In Henri Tajfel’s language, it provided a cognitive alternative which is essential to any process of social change.

The burgeoning use of Twitter, of Facebook and of YouTube gave people the virtual experience of solidarity and encouraged them to believe that, if they came down on the streets themselves, they would have the support and the safety of thousands – if not millions – of others.

Then, in the squares of Cairo and Alexandria and Suez and other cities besides, people had the lived experience of solidarity – of people sharing their feelings and fears and food with others. Those who started as strangers came to stand together, to dance together, to laugh and to cry together. Shared experience generated strong solidarity.

So when Malcolm Gladwell asserts in the New Yorker that ‘the revolution will not be tweeted’ (because social media cannot generate the strong ties necessary to produce social change) he is only partially right. For we are witnessing a remarkable reversal. After nigh on a century where developing media technologies have isolated us and rendered us passive in the face of someone else’s message, now we are seeing technologies that can bring us together in order to make our own stories.

Certainly, these media are insufficient on their own. But when they allow us see that our views are shared, and when they give us the confidence to assemble with others, and when they lead us to be part of living, breathing embodied communities, then we are transformed from spectators into actors. In short, they provide the tools for us to make our own history.