Opinionista Walter Pike 12 February 2011

Information will always defeat authoritarian states

What scares those in power most about the Internet and social media is that they don’t have control in those spheres anymore. And how do you maintain power if you no longer have control?

What caused the recent unrest in Eqypt was not social media; it was the economic and social situation in that country, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the high employment among the youth, those under 30 make up  60% of the population.

But consider this: In December 2009 the mobile penetration in Eqypt had reached 71% or more than 55 million subscribers and had been growing at 34% year on year. Egypt has desktop Internet usage of 22%. Interestingly, while Egypt’s neighbours Sudan and Libya are hovering around 10% and less, Tunisia has a relatively high penetration of 34%. That Tunisia, with one of the most repressive regimes in the region, had had to make massive concessions to people power earlier is no coincidence.

In South Africa mobile penetration is 100% and as a direct result of the greed of mobile operators and an inefficient national telecommunications carrier, MXit, the online “chat” service has 26 million registered users, online data use has doubled year on year according to influential research company World Wide Worx and Internet browsing is now a major mobile activity. Already Twitter is a significant mobile activity with massive growth forecast for the next year.

When the Egyptian government realised the effect coordination via the Internet and social media was having, they closed down the Internet, paralysing the economy even further. But the cat had already been let out of the bag. Work-arounds were quickly created and Egyptians were even able to leave voice tweets using ordinary telephones.

Even in that bastion of democracy and communication, the US, the Senate is debating an Internet “kill switch” bill that would give the US president the ability to shut down the Internet.

In the commercial sector in South Africa, Cell C, Woolworths, Absa, Standard Bank, and the Joburg Metro have all seen the effect of people power on their businesses, as did international companies such as BP and Nestlé among others.  The ANCYL wants to speak to Twitter about Malema spoof accounts.

All this demonstrates the real nature of the Internet. “The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect,” said Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web. Its real power is to create linkages, a massive network connecting people and ideas and to allow those ideas to spread. The Internet has stopped being just a source of information and is now a place of coordination. One of the key reasons is an economic one: Whereas in the past the most efficient manner in which ideas could spread was through mass media and, because the cost of setting up a newspaper printing press, radio stations, TV stations was so high the only people who could use them had to have access to capital. The alternative was physical meetings and passing ideas by word of mouth, a rather slow process.

These days the marginal cost of publishing/broadcasting is close to zero. Anyone can blog, anyone can have a Twitter account and broadcast to the world. The only device they need they already carry with them wherever they go. The same device they use to access the information allows them to comment and share, to spread the information.

Futurist Alvin Toffler spoke of three sources of power: violence (might is right), wealth and knowledge. In the information society, the most powerful is knowledge and is trumping both wealth and violence.

It is possible to keep people ignorant, by controlling the spread of knowledge, but this was far easier when you could control the pathways down which it spreads. How do you do it when every citizen, every customer, every consumer is a publisher?

When everyone has his or her own independent network of connections, when you don’t dare switch off the technology that drives these connections for more than a very short time for fear of destroying your economy and competitiveness.

The lesson those in power – be they in central or local government, corporations, brands or anyone spreading any idea – need to understand is that they are not in control. The people are in control.

Governments can no longer hide behind a wall of repression and fear, nor can brands hope they can advertise or spin their way to success. The secret is in substance, in execution, in delivering experiences and ideas that the people themselves want to spread, because who would you believe – your friend or what you saw on TV? DM

Walter Pike is the founder of PiKE | New Marketing, consulting in building brands in an always on, always connected world. He has a background in marketing, traditional advertising agencies and was head of faculty at Marketing & Advertising at the South Africa’s AAA School. He has been a citrus farmer, racehorse breeder and owner, a cricket and soccer coach.

This article first appeared on Free African Media.


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