Once again we see headlines of “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolt” as social change sweeps across the Arab world. While we don’t know what the outcome of these events will be, it’s clear that social media has played a major part in building movements and fostering change around the globe. At the same time there is a great deal that these events can tell us about how social media is evolving and how we can deploy it better in our part of the world.
The first thing to understand is that, compelling as the headlines might be, these revolutions were not created by social media. Like all social movements they had their origins in real, tangible needs. The role of social media has been to function as platform which gives expression to these needs while simultaneously connecting people through a tightly knit broadcast network. While mass media channels such as Al-Jazeera television have played a very important role in creating mass awareness the unique quality of the social media network is the ability to create a direct connection with ever expanding group of like minded individuals. These connections, based on a level of common purpose and social trust created the movements that have led to action in both of these countries.
One of the key reasons why social media has been successful in fostering these movements has been the ubiquity of the mobile phone. In his book “Here Comes Everybody”, Clay Shirky points out that “communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring”. In the Middle East and across the third world plain old cellphones, not smartphones, have become ubiquitous and boring. The result? Instead of focusing on the next bright shiny App or feature like we do, users in the Third World are inventing simple and direct tools that harness mobile communications technology to answer real, everyday needs. When what we routinely call “dumbphones” are now being used to track downcounterfeit pharmaceuticals, open and fund bank accounts and allow farmers to remotely check market prices it should come as no surprise that the same tools would not be used, in conjunction with social media platforms, to build powerful social and political movements.
Many of us marketers share a similar, albeit less political, goal of creating movements centered around brands. What we can learn from these examples is that it’s not just the technology that is important, rather it is the ability for the technology to help address a relevant need that can lead to success. All too often we see examples of brands that try to create social movements based on by talking about themselves. The lessons Tunisia and Egypt are that in order to build a credible movement with social media we need to use social platforms to give voice to a relevant need. By understanding and focusing on consumers interests, passions and concerns we can use the trusted networks of social media to build conversations that will become movements that ultimately create real value for both consumers and brands.