Learning to Lead: Facebook, Egypt and The Social Network

On Sunday night, Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network will be one of the two or three betting favorites for the year’s best picture at the annual Academy Awards extravaganza in Hollywood. The film tells the (largely fictionalized) early story of Facebook, wrapped in the coming-of-age tale of founder Mark Zuckerberg and the compromises he chose to make on the road to creating what is fast becoming the privately-owned dial tone of social media. Yet that Graduate-meets-Silicon Valley story, fascinating as it is, may only be a prequel to a more significant epic – the role of Facebook in worldwide freedom movements and the real coming-of-age story that represents for our networked world.

I don’t know if Sorkin plans a sequel, but surely the last three months in Facebook’s brief history qualifies for a sweeping cinematic treatment. Pity David Lean no longer walks this mortal coil, because the follow-up would clearly channel Lawrence of Arabia more than The West Wing. If Facebook is to help lead in the modern world, and to move beyond its mere multi-billion-dollar valuation to grasp the social value Zuckerberg is always talking about, the lessons of Egypt and the revolts roiling the wider Arab world must not go unlearned.

My friend Micah Sifry has a must-read post up at techPresident that serves as a sort of challenge for Facebook and he nimbly puts his finger on the nub of that challenge: the investors’ imperative to continue to grow the vast online service and reap ever greater revenue and profit rewards versus the more idealistic goal of building a vital social graph that encourages (and indeed, helps to guarantee) human freedoms, particuarly free speech. “While Facebook is a company built by young techies who care about openness and transparency,” writes Sifry, “it is also struggling to expand into countries like China, which abhor those values.”

This is a struggle that all nonprofits and NGOs – and the less formal movements beyond – must consider before investing their time, their networks, and their intellectual capital with Facebook and other social networks. While I cannot help but advise clients to “go to where to the people are” and therefore recommend a strong Facebook presence, I’m conscious of the fact that Facebook is a private enterprise, currently wired to make money and reward shareholders; and I think the ownership of data and relationships – the DNA of the social graph – is dangerously tilted towards ever-larger centrally-controlled private concerns that (despite great intentions) are non-democratic.

Sifry cites the example of the disappearance from the Facebook page of Cairo University professor Dr. Rasha Abdullah of a video showing the murder of an Egyptian protester by security forces. It mirrored Facebook’s takedown of Wael Ghonim’s iconic “We Are All Khalid Said” page last November – the page eventually credited with powering the January 25th revolt. “Young people using the site as a “democratic republic” need to know that their rights will be protected–including their privacy in settings where governments may not be so friendly to democratic conversations.” And indeed, Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio’s article in the Daily Beast shows how Facebook’s “policy” toward human rights campaigns and democratic organizers is so much chewing gum and bailing wire; it took the the behind-the-scenes ad hoc intervention of a Facebook executive in Europe to keep Egypt’s most important young activist on the site – and Ghonim has been effusive in his praise of Facebook as a brilliant organizing tool for young Egyptians. Giglio’s piece showed the ambivalence at the company.

“Facebook has seemed deeply ambivalent about this idea that they would become a platform for revolutions,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center on Internet and Society. “And it makes sense that they would be deeply ambivalent.”

The former Facebook official says of the company: “There’s a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you’re operating a neutral platform. People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there’s also a desire to not get shut off.”

It’s understandable that Zuckerberg and Facebook face competing forces, and Zuckerberg has favored a more libertarian view towards his platform (he once griped about having to take down the pages of Holocaust deniers).

Yet clinging to an anodyne Terms of Service to bounce anything controversial seems – I dunno – so damned last year to me. The world is changing rapidly, and open social communications are leading the way, at least in part.

Those of us who reject so-called “hacktivism” displays of preening “civil disobedience” – you cannot legitimately support free speech by shutting down speech on the web by DDos attack, however much you disagree – are intellectually cornered, in a way. We need to root for the big semi-open platforms – Facebook, Google, Twitter – while wearing down the finish on our worry beads over their monied, private control. Yet it’s almost as if, in the argument over social media and its role in revolution and resistance, Facebook argues against itself. Witness the lame spokesman-speak evident in the company’s comment for a recent New York Times article on its reluctant role in Egypt:

“We’ve witnessed brave people of all ages coming together to effect a profound change in their country. Certainly, technology was a vital tool in their efforts but we believe their bravery and determination mattered most.”

Who wrote that, Malcolm Gladwell?

Compare that corporate vernacular mess to the enthusiasm of Wael Ghonim. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked him, “Tunisia, then Egypt, what’s next?,” Ghonim replied succinctly “Ask Facebook.” He then went on to personally thank Mark Zuckerberg, and said he’d love to meet Facebook’s CEO. Clearly, Ghonim (who works for arch-competitor Google, ironically) was channeling the Mark Zuckerberg who, upon hitting 200 million registered users, placed Facebook at the center of social change: “Creating channels between people who want to work together toward change has always been one of the ways that social movements push the world forward and make it better.”

[As an aside, I’m very much looking toward some deeper reporting and analysis on the role of networked activism, social media, citizen journalism, and street-level organizing in the Egyptian revolution. Luckily, my friend Al Giordano and his compadres from the Authentic Journalism school – which I wholeheartedly support – are headed to the Middle East to find out. In an excellent post this week, Giordano wrote: “The media, including that part which has been sympathetic and in solidarity with the Egyptian revolt, has proved so far completely incapable at the task of coldly and rationally documenting what exactly the young organizers, authentic journalists, bloggers and other change agents in Egypt did, under extremely difficult conditions, to end a thirty-year dictatorship in eighteen days. That’s where the story remains, largely unreported.”]

The choices Zuckerberg and Facebook make now really do matter for the networked future. Last week, Rebecca MacKinnon wrote a well-considered assessment for Foreign Policy of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s second major address on Internet freedom:

Clinton was certainly right to highlight the fact that corporations running Internet platforms and telecommunications services have equally serious obligations to uphold universally recognized rights to free expression and privacy, particularly when governments fail to respect these rights. Companies around the world face strong pressure to censor, monitor, and silence users and customers when it suits government interests. The Egyptian government’s shutdown of Internet and mobile services could not have succeeded without the private sector’s cooperation. Research In Motion, the owner of BlackBerry, has been asked by a range of governments to comply with surveillance requirements.

Some activists are concerned that Facebook is making it easier for governments to track them down by enforcing terms of service requiring the use of real names, no matter where in the world you live. It was thus encouraging that Clinton called on companies to join the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort by companies, socially responsible investors, human rights groups, and academics to help companies make and uphold such commitments. Unfortunately only Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have had the cojones (as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would put it) to join.

Secretary Clinton’s speech was the most important a major American political figure has ever made on the subject of an open Internet and a more networked government. And it signaled a major step in the movement to open up governments – even superpowers – t0 the increased scrutiny and a participation of the citizenry.

Yet I thought the weakest part centered on private companies and their role in freedom movements, online and off – and the power relationship they have with data. Media technology is one of the strongest financial and cultural forces the U.S. has, and it’s clearly thought of as a vital national asset by the Obama Administration; Clinton’s speech (and ongoing State Department collaboration with social media companies) and President Obama’s well-publicized dinner with a gaggle of Silicon Valley machers were clear signals to this effect. So I guess it was understandable that Clinton didn’t push the private data control aspect too hard.

In any event, I’m fairly certain we cannot rely on government to guarantee a Facebook that’s as socially aware – as socially vibrant – as it is socially wired. No, that’ll take the crowd itself.

More than its investment bankers, Facebook listens to its network and adjusts its practices accordingly. Sure, the company has long been guilty of “launch, fail, react” cycles – but it has been responsive to its users. There have been many uprisings in Facebook’s brief history, and to Zuckerberg’s credit, he’s never played the Hosni Mubarek role.

Who knows if The Social Network‘s tale of youth and founding moments will grab the Oscar on Sunday, and in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia and Iran, I doubt if anyone cares. Sorkin’s film had a clever marketing tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Nor do you create real social change without making the tough choices.

History is written too quickly for the filmmakers in 2011 – and Facebook’s own Tahrir Square is abuzz with change, hope, and major challenge to Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the social web.