As an Internet entrepreneur, I am watching events in Egypt with a different perspective. What is playing out on the streets in Cairo has a strange resonance with what is playing out on the commercial Internet today.
As we watch the crowds organize and demonstrate, act together and coordinate, there is no doubt that we are watching an amazing social phenomenon. But at another level, we are watching a basic test of the Internet’s strength and transformative power.
Are the publishing tools that the Internet provides creating a Gutenberg Bible moment – transforming history – or just another, better version of the telephone or TV?
Are people acting in a way they wouldn’t have without the Internet tools?
Although it seems odd to take a commercial point of view on this question, we are in the middle of an unusual moment when tightly tied to the political news is the role of Google, Twitter and Facebook – all new companies, two of them still private.
Malcolm Gladwell famously declared in the New Yorker that the social impact of the Internet and services like Twitter was just so much hype. He pointed to the great social movements of our time, including lunch-counter boycotts against segregation during the 1960s, as examples of how critical social activism took place without the Internet – thank you very much. In his view, the types of collective action enabled by the Internet were more akin to parlor games, like finding a lost cell phone, for example.
But what is going on in Egypt seems to defy his characterization. More recently, the massive valuations and investment in Internet properties all suggest that the markets think something fundamentally different is happening, thanks to Internet tools.
The basic investment thesis is not that different from the basic political thesis.
New tools are going to enable people to amplify the power of human behavior, although no one knows exactly how much or in exactly what way.
The Wall Street Journal recently quoted Mohamed Haykal, an Egyptian political analyst: “The effect of mobiles, computers, satellites – there is a generation coming that is outside the traditional controls.”
If you have had a chance to see the film “The Social Network,” that is roughly the message about Facebook. This is a generation outside of the traditional social controls.
In the 1960s, sociologist Mark Granovetter wrote of the “Strength of Weak Ties,” which seemed to foreshadow the rise of social networks. Your tight bonds didn’t define the power of your social circle, but rather the extent and reach of more casual connections. This generation is able to put that theory into practice at a velocity and depth never before imagined.
In Egypt, the government attempted to shut down the Internet, hoping to shut down the digital organization. Yet, as Andrew McLaughlin, former deputy chief technology officer of the Obama administration, correctly noted, the effort was largely unsuccessful. Digital and even old analog-to-digital communication (think old dial-up modems) enabled communication to continue. The digital flood was too strong to contain.
Forbes magazine recently profiled the Internet start-up Groupon, claiming it was the fastest-growing company – ever. Faster than Google, faster than Microsoft.
Groupon’s business is a new gloss on an old idea – deep-discount coupons. The twist is that Groupon requires a certain number of people to accept the deal before anyone can get it. This has led to a massive collective action and a company that is on track to reach $1 billion in sales faster than any company in history.
Ironically, Groupon grew out of a company called the Point, which was a site dedicated to collective social activism.
When I spoke to Andrew Mason, the chief executive of Groupon, at a Venture event in New York City last year, he told me he was a political science student with an eye toward changing the world when he formed the original company, trying to make neighborhoods better and companies more responsive to consumer complaints.
“Oh well,” Mr. Mason told me. “I guess I will just have to settle for this.”
For those watching the astronomical valuations of Facebook and others, it is hard to see what is happening in Egypt and not believe that we truly are at an inflection point in how we organize ourselves. That has implications not just for politics, but for business at every level.
It isn’t that human aspirations have changed – we still want freedom or maybe just a cheaper pizza – but the Internet and the social-media tools on top of it are truly putting our generation “outside of traditional controls.”
By Morris Panner, chief executive officer of groupflier.com and a former federal prosecutor and senior adviser on cybersecurity at Harvard University.