Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Wael Ghonim, Google, and the Greatest Social Media Campaign in History

The recent revelation that Wael Ghonim - the Google exec who was detained by the Mubarak regime and was missing from January 27 until today - was the administrator of the We Are All Khalid Said website and facebook page that declared Jan 25 to be the Egyptian day of protest makes for a plot worthy of Hollywood, or perhaps a novel by Naguib Mahfouz were he still alive:

Following the fatal and unpunished beating of a small-time businessman in Alexandria at the hands of the police after he "posted a video on the Internet of officers sharing the spoils from a drug bust among themselves" (scroll down in this link for the full story), an anonymous hacker decides to seek revenge.  Known only as El Shaheed - the martyr - he creates a page that galvanizes an entire nation against a ruthless dictator who has held power and destroyed opposition for nearly 30 years.  In a country threatened by sectarian violence and a populace so disenfranchised the trash in the street becomes a symbol of its decay, a day of protest is declared that hardly dares to hope (dream?) that perhaps it will be the one to finally bring this despot down when so many have failed before.  Using the latest in communications technology and the simplest handmade signs, a fierce unity is created between Christians and Muslims, Secularists and Religious, Rich and Poor, all rising up to take the revolution to the streets - even sweeping them in their wake(!) - while the world waits with baited breath to learn the outcome of the standoff between the people and their universally despised autocratic leader.  Men on horse and camel back, riot police, and fighter jets attempt to intimidate the people, but they will not back down.  Finally, the government cuts off the internet - but too late. El Shaheed goes quiet, but his role is done.  Older forms of social media - also known as word of mouth - take over.  Unable to ascertain his identity, a Newseek reporter writes:

"Fires still burned on the streets of the capital; in their flickering light, people huddled together to talk openly about revolution for the first time in many years. ... Perhaps somewhere in the crowds was El Shaheeed."

But alas our hero was nowhere to be found, and the drama builds.  Around the same time the audience learns that Wael Ghonim, the Google Exec who was coincidentally visiting Egypt that week, has gone missing.  No one puts it together until finally Ghonim is released, driven to freedom by the head of the ruling party, and his identity as digital vigilante and hero to his people is revealed.

At the same time as the plot turns were so dramatic as to be the product of a master novelist, there is a more subtle idealogical undercurrent I can't help but speculate on: was Ghonim inspired in part by the culture he experienced as an executive at Google, a company whose mission is to "make [the world‘s information] universally accessible" and whose motto is "Do no evil"?  Can you imagine an executive at Apple or Microsoft - famed for their secrecy and non-competitive practices, respectively - being behind a revolution?  Not a technical revolution, but a real revolution, the kind where people die for their freedom and the lives of those who survive are irrevocably altered?  What about an executive at Facebook, which is presumed to know the most about "social" while Google supposedly stumbles in this realm.  Would he dare to aspire to social altruism, after seeing his own CEO admit to having deceived his Harvard classmates about his intentions while he built thefacebook.com behind their backs?

I personally find it quite poetic that Ghonim worked at Google - the company that went toe-to-toe with China's censorship while the rest of the Western world meekly toed the line, finally turning its back on the largest internet market in the world in a decision that ethics were more important than business.  Google's brand equity in my eyes just increased exponentially; while Ghonim is still quite emotional after being released from 12 days of prison, I would not be surprised if at some point he did not thank his superiors at Google for fostering an atmosphere in which ethics mattered.

As for Google "not getting social," as so many tech pundits have proclaimed, I submit the following evidence in their favor.  On Jan 22, just days before the revolution broke out, Newsweek published an article with the following quotes:

As of Friday morning, nearly 69,000 people had signed on to the Jan. 25 protest on the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page


Despite all the buzz building up to the January 25 protest, however, ElShaheeed is well aware of the difficulties in translating Internet clicks to support on the ground.  To that end, he has been using the page to urge people to organize by traditional means as well, even posting links to flyers to be downloaded and distributed—today, activists distributed leaflets to people coming out of Friday prayers. But he says only Tuesday will tell whether these efforts have been enough.  

Whether it was enough has not quite been determined, but I'd say the odds look pretty good.  And how does the Khaled Said campaign rank as a social media effort?  Well, I'd say going from 69,000 to an estimate three million protestors in the streets in roughly two weeks - in a country with less than 30% internet penetration - is not bad for viral growth.  I'd also say that the response to the "call to action," as marketers call it, saw a pretty good conversion ratio.  In fact, I might say that Wael Ghonim is the greatest social media organizer in history.  

Hats off to Wael Ghonim and the brave Egyptian people who heeded his call for changing history.   Let us not forget that this was not Hollywood, that the blood spilled and the wounds endured were real, and give a moment of silence and respect for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom. 

Posted via email from SYSTEMS ANALYSIS

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