- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
Here’s the latest data point in the ongoing debate about just how pivotal a role Twitter played in the Arab Spring: This year, according to Twitter, the top hashtag on the microblogging site was not #justinbieber or even Charlie Sheen’s bizarre, mid-meltdown reference to #tigerblood (second place) but #egypt, which users used to categorize tweets related to Egypt’s revolution. #jan25 — a reference to the start of the Egyptian uprising — was the eighth-most-popular hashtag, while Cairo and Egypt were the two most-referenced cities and countries and Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was the most-discussed world news event (besting the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, mind you).
Egypt’s dominance is emblematic of the important role hashtags played in organizing real-time updates and reaction to big news events this year. In 2011, #egypt, #jan25, and #japan (used during the country’s earthquake and tsunami in March) all appeared among the top eight hashtags. Last year, by contrast, no news event appeared in the top eight. Instead, in a year that witnessed major news events like the Gulf oil spill and the earthquake in Haiti, whimsical conversation threads like #rememberwhen and #slapyourself reigned supreme.
The year-end results may also speak to the outsized role Twitter played in Egypt relative to other Arab Spring countries (and, perhaps, the outsized international interest in the Egyptian revolution relative to other uprisings). The Guardian‘s Peter Beaumont writes that Egypt had "a far more mature and extensive social media environment" before its uprising than Tunisia did before its revolution, and the Egyptian protests went on to forge microblogging celebrities like @Ghonim and @Sandmonkey. A survey by the Dubai School of Government in March estimated that Egypt had the largest number of active Twitter users in absolute terms of any Arab Spring country, though over half were concentrated in Cairo. While Mubarak blocked the Internet for a spell as his government wobbled (Google worked with Twitter to enable Egyptians to tweet with the #egypt hashtag via voicemail), Egyptian activists also haven’t faced as much censorship as, say, their counterparts in Syria.
For a sense of the role Twitter played in Egypt, check out this visualization by André Panisson of the network of retweets with the hashtag #jan25 when Mubarak’s resignation was announced on Feb.11, 2011. A study by the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam in September found that in the week before Mubarak stepped down, the number of tweets in Egypt and around the world about the political developments in the country jumped from 2,300 a day to a staggering 230,000 a day.