That being said, it is also true that both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts were literally decades in the making. Speaking in June 2011 at the eight annual Personal Democracy Forum, a procession of young Arab activists who had all been intimately involved in the spring revolts, explained the process of how they and millions of supporters were "weaving a network for change" in their countries, and what role the emerging media played in making that happen. From Riadh Guerfali to Dr. Rasha Abdulla to Mona Eltahawy to Alaa Abdel Fattah, they noted the Arab Spring actions were emphatically not "Twitter" or "Facebook" revolutions that had coalesced online, but were instead the outcome of decades of networked resistance offline.
At the same time, they said, the revolts were clearly facilitated, and to some extent accelerated, by the decentralized organizing power of the new social media. The results of this offline/online action mashup were surprisingly successful revolutions that overthrew long-entrenched political forces. As Alaa Abdel Fattah pointed out in his remarks at the forum, the roots of the revolution in Egypt went back as far as 1972 and efforts made by his parents' generation. Ultimately, he explained, they had been stymied by a clever power structure that painstakingly divided and thus conquered the protesters, marginalizing some and buying others off with favor and access. Decades later, Fattah pointed out, the emerging social media suddenly made it possible "to make noises louder online, to build local movements with one narrative and then build them online to a mass movement." As another speaker at the forum, Omoyele Sowore, explained, "The Internet has helped revolution; but the Internet is not revolution."
(The above is an excerpt from Rory O'Connor's new book Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media, just published by City Lights.)