Somewhere in newly Mubarak-free Egypt, there is a baby girl named “Facebook Ibrahim.” The name isn’t a linguistic mistake, as in the case of my ob-gyn grandfather’s non-English-speaking patient, who named her twins “Syphilis” and “Gonorrhea” because she saw the words on a poster in the hospital. On the contrary, it’s new father Jamal Ibrahim’s way of paying some serious homage to the social networking site that played a major role in the success of Egypt’s recent revolution: According to Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google, “This revolution started on Facebook.”
Growing up, I heard a lot about how the Internet and “screens” in general would rot my brain. “It’s a cesspit,” was (is) my father’s favorite saying about online media. “It breaks my heart to see you looking at that screen when you could be outside, or reading a book or coming with me to this demonstration about rent control.”
See, the thing is, my parents are children of the ’60s and ’70s in more ways than just their inability to understand modern technology — they’ve never really forgotten the heady days of Vietnam protests and breaking into television stations to interrupt the nightly news and all that maybe-revolutionary, definitely political activist stuff. They still do all that stuff now, although maybe minus some of the breaking-in. Basically, though, they want to make a difference, and they want to do it loudly and preferably holding a sign or two. If a big pro-labor demonstration hadn’t happened in Boston last Tuesday, I’m pretty sure they’d have been on a bus down to Wisconsin.
When I called them to talk about it, though, I found myself telling my dad how many protesters were in Madison at the most recent count. I’d read the number online, minutes before I called — Dad hadn’t been out to buy that day’s paper yet. It was a little like being in the Twilight Zone, discovering that I was more up-to-date on a labor issue than my union-president father; I had the same feeling later, when I told my mom that I’d just found out, from Twitter, that the House had passed the bill to defund Planned Parenthood.
I signed a petition against that bill, online — then I posted the link on my Facebook page. On my newsfeed, it appeared right above some pictures of gratuitous underage drinking and below my high school calculus teacher’s wall post about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposed anti-union bill.
My father, who to this day refers to Facebook as “MyFace,” totally without irony, didn’t allow me on the computer for more than 30 minutes a day until I was 16. I think he associated the Internet mostly with pedophiles lurking in AOL chatrooms (if he even knew what those were) and the fact that while I was online, he couldn’t use the phone. There was nothing I could possibly be doing online that was at all that valuable.
He’s not all wrong, as my interesting drinking-picture/petition link Facebook juxtaposition shows — but more importantly, he’s not all right. For every trashy porn site visited or game of “Robot Unicorn Attack” played on the Internet, there’s someone tweeting about #Jan25 (the viral hashtag used to consolidate on-the-ground tweets about the Egyptian demonstrations) or re-blogging facts about just how much money women’s health services actually save taxpayers every year.
The Internet cannot topple dictators — bytes and pixels didn’t stand in the streets of Egypt, real people did. But a lot of those real people were there because they had access to the Internet. When dictators — in Egypt, and more recently in Libya — want to shut down a revolt in the modern age, they start by shutting off the Internet. That’s how crucial a tool it is for the free exchange of information, how powerful a weapon against censorship. My father is fond of saying that he realized in 1974 that he had every nonhuman thing he needed — a radio, a bicycle and a lettuce dryer — and he would never want anything else. If the Internet had been around four decades ago, I suspect there’d be something else on his list.