Wednesday, February 16

Causing Revolutions: The Influence Of Nobody

"I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I'll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor." —  Asmaa Mahfouz

Jay Rosen has contributed a nice round- up of posts that brings some balance back to the debate of whether or not social media helped topple a dictator, so I won't bother. (Hint: It's not a yes or no answer. It's not even the right question.) There's a better topic, even if some of it overlaps.

This topic comes in the form of 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz (and others). While she is a young and reasonably new activist in Egypt, she would be considered by most social media measures as one of the least likely catalysts of an uprising. She might even be considered a nobody. (Me too, I imagine.)

And yet, she is the person who posted a status message on Facebook, not Twitter, saying that she was going to Tahrir Square. It was also her video that resonated with the Egyptian people. And it resonated not because she appeared to be somebody but rather nobody, much like them. Here is the video if you haven't seen it.

You can read one of the earliest stories about her contributions here. You make the call on the source. There are others. Thousands in fact, including The New York Times, which included that her video motivated men even more than women.

Real influence often belongs to nobody at the right moment.

Sure, I understand there is some hubbub about whether social media played a role or not, even if most of it was preemptive push back. I call it "preemptive" because the people Rosen criticized for the push back seemed to be reacting to what they thought people would say. They thought people would say "social media toppled a dictator" because they did say things like that about Tunisia. Mike Masnick addressed it too, perhaps even better than Rosen.

The better question is what can we learn from Mahfouz about influence? And what does her role say about those who cater to somebodies as opposed to nobodies?

I think the answer predates social media. After all, Rosa Parks didn't need Twitter or Facebook or even an Internet to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

busRight, there were others before Parks (much like there were others before Mahfouz in Egypt). But unlike the disobedience by Parks in 1955, no other individual action sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. Hers is the story of the right action, the right message, the right time, and the right nobody. Someone who unexpectedly turned out to be one of the most important somebodies in the civil right movement.

I suspect the same could be said about Mahfouz, whether or not she had Twitter or Facebook. The only difference is that the new tools speed things up.

For Parks, it took 24 hours before her story (originally printed and circulated on a flyer to the local black community) reached Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and even longer for the Supreme Court ruling (Browder v. Gayle, 1956). Hundreds of years earlier, it took months before the iconic Paul Revere depiction of the Boston Massacre to circulate before enough people saw it as a rally point that sparked a revolution six years after. Hundreds and hundreds of years before that, Spartacus did not even have the benefit of a printing press.

All told, there have been hundreds of notable and historic revolutions and rebellions all over the world well before social media. And, I suspect there will be hundreds more long after social media is replaced by some other sweeping form of communication.

The tools, no doubt, will continue to change. But what will remain is that revolutions, uprisings, and rebellions are most often sparked by nobodies, regardless of the communication tools at their disposal. They are not sparked by nobodies who turn into somebodies, who then turn their backs on the rank and file of nobodies from which they came.

And this, more than any other lesson, is why we ought to be more cautious about influencers. They are only somebodies under constant threat of losing the authority granted them by the fat and happy mass of nobodies. However, when those nobodies feel less than happy, they are also the ones who may one day unexpectedly change history in ways we can never imagine. In ways that Mubarak never imagined. In ways that George III never imagined. In ways that Roman republic never imagined.

Nobodies define history, even when they are obscured by it.

Not all of it has to be confined by revolution or uprising. Sometimes it can be a simple act of incredible heroics.

Case in point. Ronald Reagan is rightly credited for setting the environment in which the Berlin Wall came down. However, he could have never delivered that speech if not for the action of the nobodies — Jerry Parr, Thomas Delahanty and Tim McCarthy (and others) — who acted heroically and prevented an assassination attempt. Those men, and also the mass of nobodies responsible for the intense East German protest in 1989, made it happen. One of the world's most influential super powers was suddenly powerless.

I don't mean this as a rub against Reagan in the least, but there was a time when he was considered a nobody too. Ironically though, what seems to separate him from a some people who climbed up the ranks of social media, I think, is that Reagan never forgot it. Other people do. Companies do. Organizations do.

Organizations needn't bother looking for and empowering influencers, tiny tyrants of their respective spheres. They ought to consider how they can work together with hundreds and thousands of the right nobodies who just might change the world.

Old school media is gone, but that doesn't mean we need to erect new media based on old ideas. It's one of the many reasons Seth Godin was wrong when he wrote about tribes or Shel Israel about villes. Social media is still populated by nomads, hundreds of nobodies with the potential to be somebody (and nobody again) in the blink of an eye. Just like life, offline.

a girlInfluence is a fragile thing, you see. And the tools — a mass following of people you think agree with you or a paid army of one million — change nothing. It all ends the same for those who forget where they came from. The most influential man in Egypt might wake up to find he has nothing more to say because a nobody girl like Asmaa Mahfouz captures the hearts, minds, and sentiment of how people feel.

It's the kind of outcome organizations might think about. It might seem easier to prop up someone who can dictate. But sooner or later, it will be the mass of nobodies beneath them that decide whether to protect your company or buy what you are selling. Because once the influencer is gone — bought out, burnt out, retired, run out, or proven a fraud — you might find yourself asking tough questions like the United States is asking now.

Do these people want our definition of freedom or just freedom from us? Were you listening?
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