Tweeting Egypt

The Social Media of the Egyptian Uprising

Twitter: Unwrapped

When I first imagined this website back in September, the idea centered around creating a comprehensive repository of Tweets from January 14 through February 12 coming out of Egypt. This would be the page where users could find those tweets. Because of technical difficulties, I will instead use this page to talk about the important role that tweets played in the uprisings and suggest who to follow for information on the ground right now. I do hope to someday aggregate tweets here. Please send it along if you have information on how to access tweets from the time period that this site deals with.

Twitter took center stage during the Egyptian people’s movement this year. There is discussion over whether or not it enabled the overthrow of Mubarak, but on both sides of the issue, it is clear that Twitter acted as a dissident media tool that contributed to protesters’ chances of success. More than ever before, it forced the public to consider the question of professional journalists vs. citizen journalists. But in looking back at the social media data from the uprising, scholars should also consider how it might have contributed to the West’s cultural imperialism, which was present in Egypt long before anyone started tweeting.

Today changes and protests in Egypt continue. The flow of tweets, too, has not stopped. Follow those on this list and feel free to suggest your own so that scholars can have the most information possible about the situation in Egypt at their fingertips.

See Meet the Tweeters for a Twitter roll with important people to follow.

How did tweeters become well-known voices and how did I come to pick them for the Twitter roll?

Many of these tweeters connect their accounts to professional journalism sites or to blogs that show their coverage or opinions in long form. If they blog in addition to tweeting, they are more likely to have developed a distinct voice that will come across in the 140 characters of a tweet. It also helps to establish their credibility as who they say they are.

In the American political scene, a social media research site called OhMyGov measures presidential candidates’ success with social media in terms of the number of followers and fans, retweets and likes each of the personal brands receives. This is an accurate appraisal: it shows the person’s reach. For the Egyptian uprising, however, retweets and linking might give a better look at who had influence, because many with higher follower counts were passing on the media they received from those on the ground, among the protesters.

Hashtags are one important way that tweeters can inject their voice into a specific community, giving them a greater opportunity to be noticed and recognized. #Egypt was one that tweeters used often. Another hashtag that became extremely popular among those Tweeting about the uprising was #jan25. This speaks to one of the problems of gaining popularity as an Egyptian tweeting on the ground. Those that got picked up often were tweeting in English. Go here to read more about the question of language choice in the uprising.

But, at times, there were those who gained fame on Twitter and in the real world, not for what they tweeted, but for what they did. One great example of this is Wael Ghonim (Hounshell, 2011). That is not to say that Ghonim’s tweets weren’t inspiring. For example, on January 27, Ghonim tweeted, “Pray for #Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die. #Jan25.” This kind of language inspired his readers; more than 100 people retweeted the message. But what really propelled Ghonim to stardom was what happened after that tweet. That same day, he was captured and questioned for 11 days. Upon his release, he spoke publicly about the experience, showing that he would not back down. That kind of strength could not be communicated through social media alone; Ghonim needed a narrative to establish the lure he now has over Egyptians. It may not have hurt that Ghonim was able to articulate that narrative in English, rocketing him to fame in the Western hemisphere as well.

While there were many who gained fame in the Arabic-speaking community by tweeting in Arabic, I cannot speak to their popularity because of my own inability to understand Arabic. I can read enough to know when a tweet is talking about مصر or حسني مبارك, but my comprehension wouldn’t allow me to decipher and judge tweets nearly as well as I can in French or English.

Another fault of my list: my picks reflect less who was tweeting during the uprising and more who has since gained fame for what they write about. Because of its linear form with newest items on top and older items vanishing as time goes by, Twitter does not easily allow for contemplation of the past. It harnesses the trends of the moment, showing what or who is important and talked about at that instant in time. Because of this, my techniques for finding who to follow tell me who is popular and influential at that particular moment.

The process of collecting names for this site began before I even knew I would be studying and writing about Egypt. I was in Morocco as the uprising broke out, and I wanted the most accurate updates, so I sent out a question to my followers about who I should follow in the Middle East. Reading the tweets and retweets of those they suggested, I found more people who offered interesting insights into what was happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Bahrain. When I began researching to create this website, I also tried using Twitter’s “search people” function to find those calling themselves Egyptian journalists. I spoke indirectly and directly with Americans living in Egypt about who they follow. Finally, I searched using hashtags such as #Egypt, #SCAF, #Masr and other variations.

Further Tweeting

  • A moving picture tweeted by an Egyptian web designer on January 26.
  • This feature from the Huffington Post shows some of the tweets posted on the day Mubarak stepped down.
  • The Guardian put together a timeline of tweets from February 2. They got their tweets from a book called Tweets for Tahrir.
  • Amy Willis at The Telegraph integrated tweets into her liveblog of the uprising.
  • Storyful – a site intended to help professional journalists reach genuine sources – often incorporates Tweets into their coverage. This recent post includes tweets from @MagButter narrating his capture by Egyptian police. It is out of the time range that I intended to study, but it illustrates how Twitter continues to play a role in the evolving movement.
  • Jan 25 Live is a Twitter account that only tweeted in English during the uprising – the tweets stop at February 11, just before Mubarak left power. It is unclear who was behind the account, but it’s intention seems clearly linked to the protests.
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