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Published on April 15, 2010

Virtual reality

According to a headline on Masrawy.com, one of the largest Egyptian news portals on the Internet, "25 per cent of Egyptian youths suffer from hypertension". Well, the youths who participated in the demonstration staged by Kifaya on 13 April experienced far more than elevated blood pressure, according to the two most popular social networking websites, Facebook and Twitter.
This is not just the age of globalisation. It is also the age of virtualisation. As the increasingly strenuous demands of everyday life leave less and less time for what, online, is dubbed "real time" social interaction, "virtual time" has come to occupy ever greater importance in the social sphere. Instant messaging (IM) software opened a whole new channel of communication a decade ago, bridging gaps of time and space at no financial cost whatsoever. However, until the breakthrough of Facebook IMs confined interactions to a more or less private space: the most they allowed was an online conversation in which multiple contacts could participate. But if one word is to describe Facebook, it would be sharing -- sharing updates, sharing photographs, sharing music, sharing friends, notes, comments, hobbies, interests, likes and dislikes -- and all of it very, very public. Facebook is quite a lot like going to the club, really.
One logical consequence of this was for any group seeking to promote its presence and expand its base to create a page on Facebook, start spreading some invitations and let the networking snowball by itself. Few are the Internet users of today who do not have an "online presence" on Facebook, or the faster-paced Twitter. Those that don't are either technology laggards or idealists opposed to the virtualisation of social life -- similar to the people who rejected mobile phones when they first appeared as a matter of principle. Their dismissal was short-lived, however. The sweeping "cellular" wave proved to be the inescapable new reality of human telecommunication.
In countries where the accuracy of the official media remains a dream, and the liberties taken by the opposition media dubious at best, it is to sources like Facebook and Twitter that the public increasingly turns for the real story. These social networking sites have become the strongest tool that movements -- political or otherwise -- struggling to survive can rely on, though they are not without risk, as time has shown. The Facebook page created for the 6 April Strike in 2008 remains conspicuously inactive. Save for a handful of well-designed posters advocating "ma tro7sh f 7eta " (don't go anywhere) and announcing the Egyptian Intifada, there have been no posts, no comings or goings by any of its 516 members as of 1 April 2008. Silence. As for the Kifaya's (established in 2005) Facebook page, it is no more. Although a page on the Kuwaiti Kifaya movement, created as recently as May 2009, is very much present, and a page for another group called Kifaya claims that "this group does not necessarily endorse the Egyptian political party Kifaya... although it does agree with many of its principles," the Kifaya that managed to stir the waters in Egypt is absent.
If you were to turn to online networking sites for information on the 13 April demonstration, what would you learn? Type the word "Kifaya" in the search bar and this tweet on Twitter instantly pops on the screen: "Security forces assault Kifaya demonstrators in DT [Downtown] Cairo." Now type "demonstration in Cairo" and learn that "this [is] said to be the largest demonstration in Cairo since 2007". Within seconds the magnitude and consequence of the protest are established.
Scrutiny of more tweets reveals that a demonstrator named Bahaa Saber was allegedly assaulted by officers, that Muslim Brotherhood members of the People's Assembly had purportedly promised the young demonstrators to break through the security blockade and retrieve Saber but failed to do so, that some believed Saber to have been whisked off in a taxi to the police station while others claimed to have seen his family near the hospital where he was taken for treatment. A link to a YouTube clip posted on a tweet shows a three-minute video of the demonstration while the user comments, presumably eyewitnesses, provide a detailed description of the alleged assault.
If quick and constantly renewed accounts of reality on the ground abound on Twitter -- more practical due to its operation solely on status updates without the varied and intricate options of Facebook -- so do users' comments on the "real time" media. A number of tweets sarcastically, yet proudly, coined the term "tweet reporting" to describe the avalanche of photographs, personal accounts and eyewitness commentaries, contrasting them with the "five minutes on the Internet and a phone call" which some journalists believe constitute reporting an event.
Another tweet states the following: "Active participants at the protest have utilised Twitter as an exceedingly swift media tool to account for what has taken place on the ground."
But how accurate is "tweet reporting"?
It is word of mouth, true, yet it remains noteworthy that while it would be in the protesters' benefit to propagate rumours of the assault on opposition figure Ayman Nour, the "tweet reporters" supporting the demonstration were quick to dismiss them as untrue.
The most eloquent of tweets supporting the 13 April demonstration was posted as a quote authored by one of the young founders of the 2,128 member-strong, and Facebook active 6 April Youth Movement: "There is no such thing as pain; all there is is the fear of the pain."



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