Economics of dissent: How Twitter and Facebook tipped the revolutionary equation

March 17, 2011: 11:05 AM ET

Perhaps it is time to update the phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword" to "The Internet is mightier than dictators."

By Othman Laraki, contributor

Riot police in Egypt

While the above statement is made tongue-in-cheek, it is undeniable that we are living through a time of accelerated change. Suddenly, we are witnessing decades-long regimes being challenged by oppressed populations. It is not entirely clear what has changed, but the advent of the Social Internet seems to somehow be involved. Some see Twitter, Facebook and other online social applications as self-congratulating, delusional apps for the Silicon Valley nerd-o-sphere, whereas others view them as dictatorial kryptonite.

As is frequently the case, reality is somewhere in between. It is true that the Social Internet hasn't changed the fundamental fabric of society. It is also unlikely that Twitter and Facebook are the revolutionary coordination weapon the world has been waiting for. Revolutions have always been the tipping of unstable systems, where some relatively minor events offer a coordination point around which dissent congeals. At the heart of the "Revolutionary Equation" is a perspective that revolutions are triggered and won based on information and signaling. Individuals revolt because they expect to make a difference and they expect to be sufficiently numerous that they will overcome their governments' ability to suppress them. Twitter and Facebook have created an environment in which dissent can reach critical mass outside of governments' ability to suppress it. The Social Internet has altered the "Revolutionary Equation" by reducing the cost of dissent and increased the cost of suppressing it.

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