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Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

This post is written by students in Professor Michael Lindsay's leadership course at Rice University.

Emerging collective leadership

Question: Through the effective use of online social media, a small group of political amateurs were able to organize and instigate street demonstrations across Egypt that now threaten to topple the Mubarak regime. How does their success change our notions of what leadership in the Internet age is all about?

The advent of social networking and near-universal availability of the Internet provides citizenry with a power that, until recently, was afforded only to those individuals and organizations controlling major TV networks and newspapers. In particular, the Internet has given people the ability to voice opinions and grievances across the world. Social networks have given them the initiative to coordinate these opinions, birthing more opportunities to organize and lead events than ever before.

Throughout recent weeks, the protests in Egypt have dominated the front pages of major media outlets, sparking the interest and opinions of millions of people worldwide. This movement and its principal aim to remove Egypt's President Mubarak from office serves as a paradigm for a new sort of grassroots movement arisen through heavy use of social networking mediums such as Facebook and Twitter.

6 April Youth, We Are All Khaled Said, and the 25 January movements all used Facebook groups as a means of relaying their grievances against the brutality and corruption of the Mubarak regime to fellow Egyptians. As thousands of Egyptian citizens took to the streets to protest their dissatisfaction with their government, the situation was reminiscent of the protests during the 2009 Iranian election. The events surrounding "The Twitter Revolution" then, and the circumstances in Egypt now, demonstrate how the Internet has begun to endow some measure of ability upon the public to check and regulate institutional authority.

Movements of this magnitude could hardly have been initiated by groups of relative unknowns without access to the Internet. TV networks and news outlets in these countries likely would have balked at criticism of the ruling regime out of rational fear of imprisonment or perhaps even physical harm. The very nature of the Internet as an open medium for networking and communication allowed the founders of these movements to freely locate others with similar opinions and beliefs. Before repressive governments could identify and eliminate these potential threats to their images, these leaders were able to instigate a sort of democratic "call to arms."

Additionally, social networking and its rising ability to create potential leaders from any collective transforms the Internet into a potentially credible "check" on oppressive authority. Specifically, one must only look to the responses of the Iranian and Egyptian governments to recognize that potential. As Iranian government officials began to recognize the rising threat posed by the widespread political dissension, they immediately attempted, though unsuccessfully, to shut down Twitter within Iran. Similarly, as riots began to develop in cities across Egypt, individuals in positions of power promptly shut down the major Internet providers open to Egyptian citizens. By immediately turning to the Internet and social networking sites during these public uprisings, these particular governments offer a telling indicator of the power that is inherent in open access to the Internet.

It would be irresponsible to claim that this new form of collective leadership could replace the more traditional notion of a leader. While recent history has proven that the Internet can be highly effective as a means of rallying communities around a common cause and eliciting short-term action, long-term stability of the movement continues to require traditional leadership to negotiate legitimate change. This distinction remains critical to the understanding of power and leadership. However, the current situation in Egypt undoubtedly exemplifies the power that has been transferred to the "common man" through technology and the Internet Age. In light of these recent events, it has become clear that the Internet is now a dynamic tool for emerging leaders; this development has altered our notions and long-held perceptions of leadership.

Authors: Plácido Gómez, Angela Guo, Zechariah Lau, Justin Ng, Dave Sims

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By Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

 |  February 9, 2011; 10:16 AM ET
Category:  Pop culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Social networks have become pervasive throughout our time. Practically ever celebrity has a Twitter, every college student a Facebook. With increasing frequency, these public venues have been used to release generally ground-breaking news. The gravity of information which these once rather fluffy sites now convey is evidence of their upward rise and gain of legitimation as networks of information. In perhaps the ultimate realization of the social network, disgruntled Eygptians, mostly younger citizens, expressed and spread their discontent over the worldwide web. Such resources also contributed to the collective action of these youth groups. Such social networks offer almost unparalleled access to people, now almost everywhere. Such trends and the events in Eygpt raise questions of whether other totalitarian leaders will allow such free networks to exist, especially among a traditionally more active younger populace. Or, will other nations follow suit in the precedent set by nations such as China and attempt to electronically block communications. Either way, the revolution in Eygpt is undoubtedly markedly different than that which colonists carried out almost 250 years ago. The 21st century revolution has been born. Whom will it affect next?

Posted by: sheppatterson | February 11, 2011 4:20 PM
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The power of social networking has been proven time and time again. President Obama proved its usefulness in rallying people together to help him win the election, and more and more we are relying on it to organize our lives in different ways. What is scary about this trend is the likelihood of government trying to monitor and/or control social networking sites. Already, facebook and myspace have caused numerous people to get in trouble with their employers and with the government. Incidents like what happened in Egypt will continue to become more frequent as social media grows, and it is only a matter of time before governments of the world take a page out of China's book and start over-regulating it.

Posted by: RobertZider | February 11, 2011 2:48 PM
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The rise of the digital age and the almost universal access to the internet provides both the masses and the leadership of the world with a new facet of power. Through social networking sites and the constant flow of data and conversation on the internet, the public now has the unchecked ability to respond to actions made by authority figures. This new ability comes in many forms: blogs, facebook events and groups, twitter updates, and political forums. Information travels nearly instantly across the internet, and since most individuals now have some form of access to this information, the masses are becoming more and more aware of what their leaders are doing and not doing. This gives the people of nearly all nations a more educated view on the actions taken by their leaders, and gives them an opportunity to react alongside millions of others who may be feeling the same way. As we have seen in Egypt, the social uprising fueled by the initial internet cries of unhappiness have led to Mubarak's stepping down as leader of Egypt- a position he held as dictator for thirty years.
The internet age also raises the leadership of countries and organizations to a new level of accountability. Since more and more individuals are becoming educated on the actions of the government, there are more people likely to respond if actions taken go against their desires. If unhappiness becomes widespread across the nation, no doubt people will converse about it over the internet and plan marches, riots, or other demonstrations to make their point undeniably clear. Leaders now should pay closer attention to the activity on the internet, not just to prevent outbreaks of unrest, but to understand their people's thoughts and to solve the problems at hand before unrest turns to rage and riots. The access to the internet not only provides a way for individuals to express their grievances with the government; it also provides the government an outlet to view and analyze the grievances of the public in the hopes of making a better, happier nation.

Posted by: kelseypedersen | February 11, 2011 2:14 PM
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• As Internet use becomes more popular and citizens gain substantial amounts of news and information online, leaders who wish to stay in power need to recognize its revolutionary power and take full advantage of the new tool. Because more people have access to the news through the Internet, the public expects more from leaders. The public expects leaders to keep constituents informed on every decision they make, as well as how and why they reach decisions. The Internet Age has raised these institutional leaders to a new level of accountability. Citizens can now evaluate their leaders, commenting and criticizing them on the web. The success of the small group of political amateurs proves how instrumental the internet is becoming and though they were being held accountable before, now power then ever their actions are being watched.

Posted by: NneomaElendu | February 11, 2011 12:47 PM
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Though social media has played a key role in Iran's 2009 election protests and, more recently, in Egypt's protests to remove President Mubarak, it is uncertain to what degree social media will be capable as a catalyst for future change. As more and more groups begin using networks like Facebook and Twitter to create consensus, what is now a homogenous group could easily become groups of disorganized factions competing for the attention of their fellow countrymen and their fellow Facebook and Twitter users.

The application of these networks in both Iran and Egypt to produce political pressure suggests that grassroots movements are still possible--even at the national level. What does this mean for leaders? Those with first-mover advantage may benefit the most; the leader who is most aware of the tools at her disposal will be able to utilize innovation before the market is flooded with others eager to divide the innovation's efficacy. Though a leader could not rely solely on social media, it does have the potential to spread his ideology to the local level. Even if it reaches only a fraction of the masses, the age old word of mouth is plenty capable to take it from here.

Posted by: calebbrown | February 11, 2011 11:49 AM
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These leaders that emerge through the internet remind me of, and are able to accomplish, what the general media used to do. As society has become more concerned with money, so have all of the major news outlets, causing them to care more about their ratings or circulation or pandering to certain audiences then they are with actually fulfilling their intended role as a watchdog organization that is supposed to keep governments in check. These internet leaders who start these groups of opposition are not concerned with money, and as a result now act as more of a watchdog than the media does. It is fascinating to see the effect that the internet is now beginning to have on politics, and I predict that we will only see this influence grow in subsequent years.

Posted by: DavidBenavides | February 11, 2011 10:47 AM
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It is true that, in recent weeks, a flurry of media activity has brought the Eygptian protests to international attention. The movement that seeks to remove the corrupt President Hosbi Mubarak from office gathered strength in numbers via various forms of social media such as Facebook. Currently, the Facebook group "A Virtual 'March of Millions' in Solidarity with Egyptian Protestors" has amassed an impressive near-million members without any formal organization at all. The page, however, is updated by the minute by dedicated fans and protestors, who report in wall posts and status updates that "A sea of people [are] outside the state TV building," that "The situation in front of the TV building is very tense." Facebook has also linked to a Youtube video that has been shared 14,102 people thus far. The video, titled "Egyptian Revolution: Take What's Yours!" gives a sense of immediate urgency to the common person to act, for it makes viewers feel as though they personally have been wronged. Furthermore, dozens of Facebook groups, each numbering in the thousands and each sporting some variation of the name "We Stand in Support of the Egyptian Protestors," have infiltrated the web in recent weeks. Undoubtedly, new forms of social media have allowed grassroots organizations and the common people more access to ready information. This information allows them to react with fiery indignation, anger, or general unrest. Without question, social media therefore plays an enormous role in social and political movements, for they can quickly reach a large number of constituencies cutting across various lines.
Yet such social media provide only the basis for change. It is difficult to argue that Facebook, Twitter, and the like have actually impacted any tangible change. Though the Egyptian protestors might protest easier knowing that they have the support of millions, when the day is done, President Mubarak will not leave office until his term rightfully expires in September 2011. Thus, though social media are useful in disseminating information to the public sphere, it truly is up to the people who hold formal and organized power to call the final decision. While the common man can indeed put pressure on his leader, he cannot singlehandedly, even when resorting to strength in numbers, change his leader unless his leader consents to such change. Because President Mubarak has lost the trust and the confidence of his people, he has indeed lost his legitimacy as a ruler. Yet one must remember that, all political agitation and protest aside, the movement to remove the President from office before September has failed.

Posted by: catherineyuh | February 11, 2011 8:53 AM
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While it is very much signified by the recent events in Egypt, I am interested in whether or not this would be a typical governments response in like situations. Or whether, it was because of the governments response, that made the social media more powerful.

When the government chose to shut down the social networks, it's actions created the image that those tweeting were relaying through their 140 characters. It appears that the threat presented by the social networks proved to be an unlikely, and unprepared for enemy of the state.

I do believe that this shows how powerful social media is in shaping leadership, because how the government responded, only gave the networks more power. I also see that because the majority of America's Senators, Governors, and even the President, have Twitter accounts or Facebook pages - it is obvious that they sense the danger of these networks.

It only takes a small group of people to shape the minds of others, and if each of these people have a method of accessing another small group of people, there will be no means of stopping them. It does appear that there is power associated with technology in the 21st Century, and it looks like social networks has the ability to connect those with less power, to those with more.

Posted by: hkaitchura | February 11, 2011 5:04 AM
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It is very interesting to think of the power of the internet and social media as an equalizing force, in terms of mobilizing and organizing the resources for a mass uprising. I definitely agree with this article's point that the internet has become a "dynamic tool" for those who lack the wealth or influence to make their voices heard through other media. It's important to note, though, that civil insurrections have been going on since long before the Internet Age, and it will be interesting to observe how the internet changes these goings-on in the years to come.

Another interesting point is that the pervasive influence of social media certainly seems to be an inhibiting factor for leadership, and current leaders have become more accountable to their people because of the fast and far-reaching spread of information on the internet. One can only hope that this leads to more legitimate, serious efforts for change on the part of leaders to meet their people's needs.

Posted by: juliaretta | February 11, 2011 3:12 AM
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The power of social networking in leadership is its ability to allow groups of people to connect with each other in ways they couldn't before. In regards to revolutions that the group mentioned, this power is realized when it allows many people who have grievances with the government to identify that there are others who share their opinions, and that they are able to communicate with those people easily. It is much easier to lead a group of people that you know share your ideas and concerns, and can easily communicate with. Due to this ease of communication, it is much easier to move these groups of people to action. Leadership in the internet age is about easily identifying the ideas of your peers and using that information to call them to action in ways that previously were never possible. Anyone who is able to communicate and spread ideas now has the ability to lead the masses.

Posted by: AJohannigman | February 11, 2011 12:57 AM
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In some ways I think that we overstate the power of social networking websites. While certainly they are a new mode of influence that we have never had before, I am not sure they are the revolutionary tactic that can fell governments now. Three recent uprisings have been powered in part by social networks: ones in Tunisia, Egypt, and last year’s Green Revolution in Iran. Two of them failed. There is inherent power in social networking, but it is certainly not absolute.

In fact, the power of a social movement is defined by its brokering ability, not by its methods. Hosni Mubarak lost his credibility, but at the same time, the major revolts have ended and he is still in power. Why? Because as a leader, he had the power of the state institutions. People en masse are not always successful brokers – they need a leader on their behalf to be able to not only organize the revolution but also to channel the energies of the populace into a bargaining chip to transition. Both Egypt and Iran had very strong central governments compared to Tunisia, and while social networks allow for information to travel, they facilitate the formation only of informal networks. By contrast, governments, trade unions, and political parties have some sort of formal organizational structure that can form a proxy government to vie with the real government in a

Thus, while social networks allow for information to travel quickly, they do not form formal power structures – just informal ties. As such, they have a very difficult time competing against a strong central government – even when the government’s popularity is very low.

Posted by: JonEndean | February 10, 2011 11:14 PM
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The authors make a very interesting point, that the Egyptian government's act of immediately shutting down the Internet indicates the power of such online social media. Indeed, the use of the Internet has arguably been at the core of the successful organization of these leadership-threatening street demonstrations, mainly as a result of its ability to simultaneously connect hundreds of thousands of people. However, I must wonder whether the use of the Internet as a way to regularly organize widespread acts of revolt against a fearsome government can last.

The very advantage of using the Internet, that it can be accessed nearly universally, may also become its greatest disadvantage. Anyone can see what is written on the World Wide Web, including governmental organizations. Organizers of radical demonstrations may find themselves in a lot of trouble because they chose to broadcast their plans where their enemies could easily find them. To me, using the internet for such a purpose is like insulting your boss on facebook, and then realizing after you have been fired that your boss has a facebook account too.

The Internet is a powerful tool, and like any great idea can be used for good or bad. Currently, new social media has given a voice to the "common man" as the authors write, and therefore the power to arrange protests, etc. However, this media is still just a tool. It does not change the fact that current leaders have the ability to violently suppress perceived threats to their position. As the authors have said, traditional leadership will not soon be replaced by the mass leadership enabled by the Internet. In fact, it may soon prove to be an asset to current leaders as a way to spy on and oppress any opposition. In present times, the Internet has proved a "dynamic tool for emerging leaders" that has transferred some power and leadership to the masses. We will see how long this lasts.

Posted by: nupurjain | February 10, 2011 10:32 PM
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The group's response is spot-on in many respects. The Internet provides individuals with a power of voice and a power of dissemination that is unmatched in history.

In considering how the Internet changes our notion of leadership, it is interesting to note that both the Iranian 'Twitter Revolution' and the current Egyptian Revolution are largely leaderless. Yes, a few leaders in both situations stepped forward to try and put a face to the respective revolutions, but these are largely populist revolutions against a current regime, rather than in favor of an alternative regime.

Perhaps, then, the success of social media turns our notion of leadership upside down. The importance of individual leaders is minimized in the face of large mass gatherings. The 21st Century view of leadership may be much more bottom-up and pluralist than in the past.

Posted by: mattwasserman | February 10, 2011 1:27 PM
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