Regular readers will be shocked to learn that I am by nature a cynic. (Yes, it’s true.) I turn especially cynical when people start gushing about beauty of collective action on the Web -- crowdsourcing, the “wisdom of crowds,” yadda yadda. Behind every “wise crowd” lies an unruly mob just waiting to erupt.
But every so often something happens that turns my Grinchy, cynical heart around on the topic of collective net activism – and it’s happening now due to the unrest in Egypt.
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock and just came out to read TY4NS: Egypt is in the throes of a people’s revolution, and I don’t mean the iPad kind. And though it originally spread via Twitter and Facebook, once the Mubarak government cut off Net access to most of the nation, those avenues of communication dried up.
[ See also: What the frak is Quora? ]
So a number of good-hearted world citizens have been trying to open up new lines of communication – among them, Google and Twitter. Using its newly acquired SayNow voice service, Google has made phone numbers available for Egyptian citizens to call in and record a message for the world to hear. These are then immediately broadcast out via the @Speak2Tweet account. Each tweet contains a shortened link to a SayNow page where you can listen to what the people of Egypt are saying.
As I write this, over 1000 tweets have already been sent out. If you don’t understand Arabic (as I don’t), you won’t get much out of most of the messages. So in an entirely impromptu move, a handful of volunteer translators have begun transcribing each message from Arabic to English, used a shared Google Spreadsheet. Log in and you can watch it update in real time.
(This file is no longer the most up to date version, because so many volunteers opened the sheet that it began to crash. But it gives you an idea of the volume and speed with which the translations are occurring. )
An organization of journalists called Small World News has set up a Web site, Alive in Egypt, where you can both hear the recordings and view the translations. Many of them are much longer than the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter.
Here’s just one example, an excerpt from “Ahmad,” who says he’s calling from next to Tahrir Square in Cairo:
… it no longer matters to us, whether or not [the military] resort to violence. We are all freedom fighters. And the second thing is that they support the demands of the public and this is great, even though we want a civilian government in the end, and we know that the military understands this. … the government is now resorting to spreading rumors that there will be thugs in the protests and that there will be chaos and that the military will open fire on the public. I'm telling the Egyptian people, don't believe these rumors, they come up with something new every day. It makes no difference to us, we're experienced now. I'm telling the people of the world that tomorrow will be a victorious day, tons of people will be coming out. God be with us, we ask for your prayers with us. God-willing, tomorrow a dictator will leave and there will be a transitional government and there will be democratic elections, and Egypt will return to its leadership role.
History is unfolding as we watch, tweet by tweet, recorded by the people who are making it. How often does anyone get to see that happening? Even I can’t be cynical about that.