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Creating a Revolutionary Culture On-Line

May 30, 2011

Aalam Wassef

I had a technologically-minded student in my Intercultural Relations class last semester who was troubled by the fact that the media made so much of the Web 2.0 aspects of the Egyptian Revolution, which he saw as very low-tech. For him, and many of his friends, things like Facebook and Twitter are dead-end commercial sites; they reject them in favor of alternatives that require at least minor programming skills.

Why, he wondered, weren’t people creating new, innovative technological forms rather than using existing platforms and commercial sites?

The answer is that while social media technologies have played a key role in the revolution, it is a revolution not by the technorati but by the tech-savvy. The fundamental principle is not invention, but innovation–finding new, political uses for technologies created for non-political purposes. Take, for example, the political work of Aalam Wassef.

Aalam Wassef is an artist and scholars  who has been involved in the protest movements for many years. He is the creator of a professional social networking site called Peer Evaluation. Wassef is not a programmer or technological innovator. But he is a brilliant example of the kind of social media innovator who helped develop an on-line revolutionary culture.

My favorite example was his use of Google Ads back in 2007.

Google Ads is Google’s main source of revenue. It allows you to buy ad space that will run in the ad sidebar as people use Google for searches. One feature (introduced in 2003) was  site-targeted advertising. With this feature, advertisers can choose keywords, domain names, topics, and demographic targeting preferences for their ads. If the keywords are not particularly popular, you can set the cost to you very low. And if people don’t click on the ad, it can cost you next to nothing.

So in 2007, Wassef asked people reading his blog to send him their grievances against President Mubarak. He then opened an Adwords account and turned the grievance messages into advertisements. Then he bought a number of significant keywords such as “Mubarak,” “Nile Cruise,” and “Egypt.” Each time someone googled one of these words, a message about Mubarak would show up in the ad space to the right.

After about three months, somebody in state security figured out how to stop this. The way Google Ads works, there is no minimum bid for cost-per-click advertising. However, if multiple users want the same keywords, they bid against each other by offering ever higher cost-per-impression or cost-per-click.

Once state security figured it out, they simply outbid him. And he moved on to other efforts.

One of the other interesting things about on-line protesters in earlier times is that they recognized the importance of interweaving multiple social media platforms–Youtube, Blogs, Delicious, Digg, CiteULike, Technorati (no Twitter or Facebook)–but had to create cross platform links manually because there were no “share” or “like” buttons back then.

Here is an interesting interview with  Aalam Wassef describing how he and others like him tried to use new media to sidestep the state’s control over mainstream media, an effort that ultimately led the state to shut down the Internet in Egypt.

You can also see him interviewed here

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