Information and Revolution: The Social Network in 1776 and 2011


A woman walks by Facebook graffiti in Cairo in February 2011, shortly after Mubarak's resignation (Stockphoto®, ©Joel Carillet)

Science in Society (SiS) is proud to feature the winners of the "Integrated Graduate Program in the Life Sciences (IGP) Science and Society Class Distinction Award." Written as part of a course on science and society, these papers were chosen to be published on SiS. This month, we present the following piece by graduate student Benjamin Haley.

In January 1776, Thomas Paine’s incendiary work, Common Sense, united the revolutionary sentiment of the American people. In June 2010, Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page, We Are All Khaled Saeed, and united the revolutionary sentiment of the Egyptian people. In both cases, the will of the masses was forged with words – and technology.

The broad dissemination of ideas requires both a medium and a method of reproduction. Throughout our early history, this was a costly endeavor. In the European Middle Ages, the dominant medium for writing was parchment produced from animal hides, and the dominant method of reproduction was copying by hand. This changed radically during the 1400s with the introduction of two technologies: wood pulp paper and the printing press. With a cheaper medium (paper) and cheaper method of reproduction (printing), the written word went through a renaissance. By 1609, the cost of production was low enough to support the development of the world’s first newspaper, The Relation, in Germany.

By 1776, printing found a historical role in the American Revolution. While revolutionary pamphlets were common in colonial America, none were so widely disseminated as Common Sense. Published near the start of the Revolution, Common Sense was an expression of Paine’s contempt for hereditary rule, faith in representation, and a call to arms for American citizens. Political theorist John Keane conservatively estimates that 120,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold in 1776 alone, making it the best-selling work in American history to that point. Read in homes and aloud at bars, the audience of Common Sense was large enough to include a good portion of the two million European colonists in the Americas at the time. It served to unify the mindset of a revolutionary community spread over hundreds of miles – an achievement that would have been impossible in an age of parchment and handwritten copies.

Near the time of the American Revolution, a new technology was under development, one that was destined to change the way ideas spread even more radically than printing. In 1746, Jean-Antoine Nollet demonstrated the speed of electricity in shocking experiment: an electrical charge was released from a Leyden jar through a chain of 200 monks holding one another’s hands. Nollet observed that all of the monks jumped simultaneously from the electric discharge despite the great distance between them. The era of "instant" electric communication would follow.

Electric communication progressed through a series of technological advances, from the telegraph to the telephone and eventually to broadcast technology. The Internet emerged from this technical lineage in the 1960s as a Defense Advanced Research Project. Less a material technology than a set of protocols for handling information, the Internet defines methods by which the networks developed for radio, telephone, satellite, and so on can speak a common language, and thereby transmit messages to the far reaches of the globe.

The foundational protocols for this great exchange of ideas are Transmission Control and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Defined in 1974, TCP/IP allows information to be routed to any computer with an IP address, regardless of which network they are connected to. Messages in TCP/IP are passed like letters in the postal service, moving from one carrier to another until they reach their address. Just like postage, they do not require a predetermined route, only a destination and the good graces of the carriers to move them closer to their goal.  Defined in 1991, HTTP allows information on distant computers to be requested, sent, and displayed by the receiver. HTTP fills the role of the type editor in print: providing titles and layout information for the documents of the World Wide Web.

The Internet has had an even larger impact on the cost of disseminating ideas than the printing press before it. Even small want ads in city newspapers can cost hundreds of dollars, but nearly unlimited text can be published for free – and globally – via online blogging and social media services. According to, 30% of the world’s population had Internet access in 2010.  That number is projected to double by 2030. As the Internet becomes universally accessible, so does the power to disseminate the ideas that influence mass action – and revolution.

There are few more salient examples of this than the recent events in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak’s administration, elected in 1981, has kept a tight control over the Egyptian media, presumably to repress dissident ideas in the country. In 2007, Reporters Without Borders rated the Egyptian media 133 out of 168 countries in terms of the freedom of the press. However, the leadership’s control has declined in recent years with the popularization of the Internet and satellite television. 

In 2008, the April 6 Youth Movement Facebook page was created to support striking workers in the Egyptian city of El-Mahalla El-Kubra. By January 2009, its focus had become more general. Many factors drove dissent: high unemployment rates, restrictions on political freedoms, the rising cost of food, and perceived corruption by wealthy rulers. Incredibly, 70,000 of the page’s members openly discussed corruption and oppression by the Egyptian government, a discussion that could not have happened in the print media. Another page, We Are All Khaled Saeed, posted in June 2010, found an even larger supporter base, attracting hundreds of thousands of followers. The page expressed outrage at the death of Khaled Saeed, an Egyptian computer science student who was beaten to death by Egyptian police. Shocking autopsy pictures of Khaled Saeed were depicted on the page and are available online. Print versions were never published. 

These web communities played a role in organizing the mass demonstrations that began in Egypt on January 25 of this year. Both Facebook pages announced the protests to their members, and followers of April 6 Youth Movement passed out 20,000 fliers before the protests. The protest on January 25th drew a crowd of 80,000, and subsequent protests grew continually larger. 

Mubarak’s administration, fearing the role the Internet had played in assembling the protests, shut down service providers across Egypt, effectively cutting off Internet access to the Egyptian people. The efforts were unsuccessful. The demonstrations may have depended on the Internet to accrue a critical mass of participants, but once started they had their own motive force. Protests continued until February 11, when Mubarak was forced to resign.

The recent revolutions in the Middle East are part of the much larger cycle of revolution that has been active throughout human history. Revolutionary pressures are complex, driven by social demands and enabled by technology. Over the next 20 years, the Internet is expected to spread to another 2.5 billion people. Given what we have seen historically, the idea that this technology will enable latent cultural forces to sow the seeds of dissent is common sense.



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