Is the role of social media in Egypt being overstated?

A lot is being said about the role of social media, especially Facebook, in mobilizing and fueling the popular uprising in Egypt. Some are already calling it a Social Media Revolution. Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Internet activist who has become one of the more recognizable faces of the movement in Egypt, dubbed it Egypt 2.0 in an interview with CNN on Friday.  It's hard to say how much of that credit is deserved and how much of it is pure hyperbole.

But a cursory look at some numbers is informative.

For a grassroots movement, the Facebook base in Egypt is pretty small, when considered as a percentage of its overall population. Egypt currently has about 5.2 million Facebook users, according to  SocialBakers a site that maintains detailed statistics on Facebook use around the world. That's less than 7 percent of Egypt's total population. In other words, less than 7 out of every 100 Egyptians are Facebook users.

In contrast, in Tunisia close to 21 percent of the population have Facebook accounts, in Quatar about 33 percent use it, in Kuwait about 21 percent, while in the United Arab Emirates Facebook is used by 37 percent of the population. Even conservative Saudi Arabia has 12 percent penetration, going by SocialBakers' numbers.

Sure, Egypt ranks an impressive 23 out of 213 countries in terms of the number of people from a country that have signed up for Facebook. However, when that number is considered as a percentage of the overall population, Egypt drops to 127 place overall.

The statistics are not a whole lot different from another perspective as well.  Only about 31 percent of those who have Internet access in Egypt have signed up for Facebook accounts--a   lot of them over the past few weeks. In contrast, nearly 60 percent of those with Internet access in Tunisia have Facebook accounts, while the number is close to 50 percent in the UAE.

What the figures show is that the social media footprint in Egypt -- at least as measured by Facebook use -- Tis lower than one might have imagined from all that's being said. It would be interesting to take a look at Twitter numbers, if those were available to see how they stack up.

For a tool that supposedly helped topple a government, Facebook use in Egypt appears to be fairly small, even compared to countries in the region. Even if it weren't, that really is beside the point.

At the end of the day, Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and all the other social media services are just tools that help enable better communication.  Just like newspapers and radio, and TV. They are the medium not the message.

Social media certainly played a role in disseminating information about what was going on in Egypt to citizens and to the rest of the world. When Egyptian police in Alexandria allegedly beat 28-year old Khaled Said to death last June, it was photos of his mangled face on a Facebook page called We are all Khaled Said, that may have sown the seeds for the popular dissent. Social media amplified what was going because it gave a few citizen journalists a way to show and tell others what they were seeing and experiencing.

The question is how many of those tens of thousands chanting in Tahir Square the past few weeks even saw those pictures, or the Twitter messages or the YouTube videos?  How many even had access to the Internet to know about these things? After all, revolutions have happened through history without Twitter or Facebook or TV or even newspapers. When people get pushed around long enough, these sort of things tend to happen. And often all it takes is just a small spark to ignite the whole thing.

This was a victory for the people of Egypt. Not social media.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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