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Coro Fellows
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Coro Fellows

As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

Speaking the digital vernacular

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 following responses come from four fellows, from three different Coro 2011 classes around the country. Matt is a member of Coro New York, Emily is from Coro Pittsburgh, and Ikenna and Daniel are members of the Coro San Francisco Class.

Translating the digital conversation
The Egyptian government was unable to stem the comeuppance of voices in the democratized, nearly unfettered commons of Twitter and Facebook. Messages from Tunisia's popular uprising became instantly repeatable and shareable; a reminder of the power of an image to change minds and inspire the masses. The Egyptian example offers valuable lessons for those who hope to exercise a version of leadership that also speaks the digital vernacular.

Unlike the normal mechanisms of team-building, groups of like-minded followers can form tribes through shared ideas. These digital tribes thrive across the bounds of geography and language--Anonymous, Wikileaks and their adherents are a testament to this. New leaders must adapt to the potentially leaderless critical mass of social media users. Still, in the critical mass, messages move and evolve with blinding speed. There is little to no importance placed on individual voices; rather, the power of the message is derived from sheer numbers. Where the voices matter is in the translation of the digital conversation to flesh-and-blood activism. Egypt proves a shockingly powerful example of this translation.

To be effective on an individual basis in this new climate, I believe leaders must craft a distinctive voice across all platforms. This means growing ones' influence through the metrics of friends and Twitter followers, and paying particular attention to the shape and current of online chatter. - Matt Spector

An act of leadership, or a means to see it?
In Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz explores the concepts of formal and informal leadership. Informal leadership, he says, is leadership that is exercised without a formal position of authority. In the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr., was an informal leader during the Civil Rights Movement, the protesters in Egypt are informal leaders who are framing the important issues, and controlling both the pace and the intensity of the information being shared. More than anybody else on the front lines they embody this movement.

Much like what television did for King during the Civil Rights Movement, what the Internet has done in Egypt is made it possible for the rest of the world to understand the magnitude of the protests and be captivated by it. Social media has become the medium used by informal leaders to frame their message and cross boundaries they otherwise would not be able forge. Using the Internet is not an act of leadership but rather a means to showcase it.

In this world where we value titles and positions, we often overlook the value of informal leadership. What the Internet is beginning to do is champion informal leaders and make them more legitimate. It gives credence to the struggles and accomplishments of the everyday leader, from twelve emerging leaders in a classroom in Pittsburgh to the nameless Civil Rights activists who marched on the streets of Selma to the hundreds of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo. -Emily Blakemore

Connecting Egypt, a political power
There has been a rise of conversation over the role of social media in politics. In his article in Foreign Affairs titled "The Political Power of Social Media," Clay Shirky states, "the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action."

I tend to agree with this overall message. With Facebook now having 500 billion users, and with 50 percent of those users logging on each day, the potential power of this organizing tool is great. If effectively used, social media can improve efficiency and increase communication drastically on political issues. Now I refute the assumption that Egypt's situation is a "Twitter revolution" of any sort, and I find it ridiculous to look at the mass protests as a primary result of social media. It is as a result of 30 years of an oppressive regime and a population that is at unrest. But I find anyone who completely discounts its role as not seeing the picture fully.

We are in an Internet age, and leadership has been drastically influenced. A leader today cannot be effective without having some basic knowledge of information technology. Internet leads to more government transparency, which is difficult for an autocratic regime. Also with the ability to send information quickly, almost the instant that an event occurs, adjustments can be made to make a stronger political impact. This occurred in Egypt and could occur elsewhere. I look forward to seeing the impacts that a more networked world will have on our political decisions in the future. - Ikenna Acholonu

The Twitter non-revolution
Because technology has changed our lives so dramatically over the past two decades, we assume that it must also be responsible for any social change that happens around the globe. This is simply untrue. The Internet itself is not revolutionary--the ideas that it empowers are. The small group of individuals who were successfully able to tap into the collective dissatisfaction with Mubarak's government are leaders for the change that they are continuing to affect on the government of Egypt and on the international psyche.

While the "Internet Age" has brought convenience, the same issues of governance and ethics will remain unanswered until we begin thinking outside the 140-character box. Leadership demands integrity and courage to affect change, and while the Internet has brought unprecedented access to information, it has also had the effect of overwhelming people out of action. Fortunately, in Egypt this was not the case. In the end, the small group who initiated the demonstrations in Egypt was successful in their leadership--and not because of the medium through which they communicated their message, but because their message had followers who shared resentment and impatience for Mubarak's government. This has and always will be the mark of an effective leader, whether in the Internet Age or in ages to come. - Daniel Cheung

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By Coro Fellows

 |  February 8, 2011; 11:07 AM ET
Category:  Pop culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Comments

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The internet no doubt made it easier to organize the protests, it is important to remember that it is primarily the wealthy elites with access. What was brought world wide attention to Egypt was not a few well placed tweets but a inspiring pictures of the peaceful crowds. And what brought many of them out was 30 years of oppression and seeing the neighbors join in.

Posted by: lsb05 | February 15, 2011 1:00 PM
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Let's not confuse leadership with going first. And let us not confuse leadership with management. So, some tweets went out: "rally in the square!" Does that make its sender the "leader"? Perhaps, the messenger or an effective rally administrative assistant. However, "leader" may be too strong of a term to describe someone who has internet access. Of all the opinions given, I am most inclined to agree with Mr. Cheung.

Posted by: ToniLA | February 14, 2011 7:31 PM
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"Now I refute the assumption that Egypt's situation is a "Twitter revolution" of any sort, and I find it ridiculous to look at the mass protests as a primary result of social media."

I would disagree with the various statements that disregard the impact of the internet on the protests in Egypt. Sure, the 30 yrs of corruption and impatience of the Egyptian people guided the motives to protesting, but we must ask ourselves, why didn't this happen many years ago? Was 30 just the magic number? Of course not. For those who claim that social media was not the primary result, they are simply misguided. The reason Mubarak was forced to step down was the intensity of the media around this issue and the fact that the world was watching it happen everyday!

The outlet in which people use to send their message is pivotal and in my opinion, it was the primary reason behind the success of the protests. Without facebook or twitter, I highly doubt that Egypt would be celebrating their victory.

Posted by: skepticLA | February 14, 2011 1:26 PM
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I agree with Ms. Blakemore that new technologies make it increasingly easy for informal leaders to establish themselves, create followings, and forge a group identity. What likely took MLK and his higher-ups weeks and months of planning, a few focused, articulate, and tech-savvy individuals can pull off in a matter of days.

That being said, conveying a compelling enough message on the internet such that hundreds of thousands of people are willing to put their lives on the line still requires the same leadership skills of a leader-- informal or otherwise-- in the pre-internet age. Vision, a clear, compelling message, and an ability to communicate that message to a great number of people in an accessible way-- these (among others) are the continuing traits a successful leader must know how to leverage.

Posted by: KatyYoung1 | February 12, 2011 12:56 PM
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Daniel, can you explain what you mean when you say the increased access to information has "overwhelmed people out of action?" This is a really interesting point and we might find value in exploring it further?

Posted by: kimyasai | February 10, 2011 10:30 PM
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ATRAN1-

I am gobsmacked and discouraged by your empty comments. Emily and Matt offer brighter optimism in their rebuttals to the prompt. Our generation needs more resilient examples of how classical leadership and social media can be focused and refined into political action and civic engagement. Besides awe-inspiring sex appeal is so passe and for the weak and easily distracted. Give humanity a chance, won't ya?

Posted by: Catsransackpolitics | February 10, 2011 2:43 PM
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ATRAN1-

I am gobsmacked and discouraged by your empty comments. Emily and Matt offer brighter optimism in their rebuttals to the prompt. Our generation needs more resilient examples of how classical leadership and social media can be focused and refined into political action and civic engagement. Besides awe-inspiring sex appeal is so passe and for the weak and easily distracted. Give humanity a chance, won't ya?

Posted by: Catsransackpolitics | February 10, 2011 2:42 PM
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I am compelled to agree with the ever eloquent Mr. Cheung. Everyone might have a Twitter, but only those with either an awe-inspiring message and/or awe-inspiring sex appeal will break through the white noise of the Internet.

Posted by: atran1 | February 9, 2011 10:17 AM
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