The Importance of “Social Influencers”

One common thread I found most interesting, mentioned by both Tufekci & Wilson, and Howard & Hussain, was about the importance of early adopters and social influencers in the process of “igniting” a social revolution in Egypt, specifically. Both sets of authors argue that although the revolutions seemed to erupt from the use of social media, the presence of notable leaders (traditionally recognized in social uprisings) was replaced by a group of well-connected, social media savvy individuals who often remained “faceless.” I ultimately question the impact these individuals truly had through social media by pointing out that the authors seemed to dramatize how many people actually used social media during the protests and also bringing up how this small number of individuals can’t do all the work themselves.

In their survey of individuals who participated in Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests, Tufekci and Wilson found that “people learned about the protests primarily through interpersonal communication” and that “social media use greatly increased the odds that a respondent attended protests the first day” (363). Howard and Hussain argue in support of this finding, adding that the street protests were made possible, in part, by social media use and online interaction. Ultimately, the two authors are optimistic about the potential of digital media to connect groups of people with social discontent in order to organize for a political/social action.

I’ve always been interested in studying how certain individuals fall in the “adopter/influencer” scale, whether that be adopting new technology, communication tools, or social norms. What I’ve often heard is that the percentage of early adopters (whom I would argue we can compare to the first round of well-connected, online activists who demonstrated their support in the early protests of Tahrir Square) is typically small when considering the total number who could have been involved. I would argue that both authors overestimate the influence of these individuals by making it seem as if they were “all” on Twitter or Facebook sharing updates. I think it’s important for us to consider that these uprisings were encouraged by social media — but that the early social influencers could not possibly do all the work.

My question for the class is: Are the early adopters/social influencers as important as the readings make them out to be?

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