Ambulance-Chasing in Egypt: Are Google, Twitter, and Others' Motives Pure?

YouTube Egypt

The Net was off in Egypt, (but now is back on), and the troops have moved in to police the demonstrators calling for regime change. Many companies outside Egypt have taken part in an effort to help--with news-spreading services inside the nation and information sharing services outside the shuttered nation. But, with some question over whether their help is welcome, needed or, in fact, helpful, should these firms really be banging their drum so hard? Altruism is veering into the realm of opportunism.

Last week's hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Egypt's cities were expected by many to swell to numbering almost a million today--and this is despite the Egyptian government's crackdown on 21st century technology. Last week all but one ISP was shut down--now that one's been shuttered. Cell phone grids are being turned off today, and the trains are being stopped. News channels have been censored, and some journalists were briefly detained before their equipment was broken or confiscated.

But several Western firms have taken bold stances and tried to help Egyptians protest anyway, and good PR is part of the package:

Google's Text/Voice/Tweet service

Google and its fresh acquisition SayNow quickly put together a new service called "Speak to Tweet" that lets Egyptians quickly release Tweets to the Web by calling one of a suite of special numbers, and leaving a voicemail. Google's service then translates the voicemail into a text-based tweet, and auto-tweets it with the hashtag #Egypt.

It's a brilliant idea, for a country who's digital infrastructure has, from a man-on-the-street perspective, been shut down. Speak to Tweet is a definite boon for Egyptians trying to get news out to the world at large--particularly important given the rough treatment of foreign journalists that's been reported.

But since people inside Egypt now really can't access the Net, it's not a service that'll support the protesters at all. Is this a case of Google trying hard (those coders worked through the weekend, after all) but kinda missing the target? And accidentally promoting some clever new technology (along with technical fleet-footedness) along the way? There's also that positive PR, in a "don't be evil" sense, gained by working for such an admirable cause.

YouTube

YouTube has been a handy resource for us outside Egypt to see, from journalist footage as well as cell phone footage, what's actually happening on the streets of the cities.

YouTube (a Google property) pulled together an official blog post to corral "Egyptian protest footage on YouTube" in one place. The post notes the "thousands of videos of the protests have poured in" and YouTube understands "how closely the world is following these events" and wants to "help people access and share this information quickly and easily on YouTube." It then lists three ways it does this: Via the latest footage appearing on CitizenTube channel, "pointing our users directly to these videos through banners at the top of YouTube pages, and through links alongside YouTube videos" and by streaming live coverage of Al Jazeera's Egypt broadcasts, "on both their Arabic and English YouTube channels."

Interestingly there's still some small ad placements on CitizenTube, although not on the Al Jazeera channels, and YouTube's landing page as of the time of writing is almost bereft of focused Egypt content (which YouTube's blog post may lead you to think they're promoting) apart from a small "Spotlight video" segment, one video image on a page of 25 other "normal" videos. YouTube, and Google, will of course make more advertising money from viewers if millions of folk flock to check out what's going on in Egypt. And though the videos may be viewed with interest by other potential protesters in nearby Arab nations, they won't do much good inside the nation as no one can see them.

Twitter

Twitter, which many folk are using as a key news source on the Egypt crisis, has perhaps the most ethical stand regarding the matter: It issued a press release via its blog titled "The Tweets Must Flow." Noting that its goal is "to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them," Twitter's team remarks that "freedom of expression is essential," whether it's to "facilitate positive change in a repressed country" or "make us laugh." Then they set out the operating principles by which Twitter itself removes offensive tweets, alongside its focus on freedom of expression.

There's no opportunity-grabbing mention of Egypt. Twitter seems content that until the Net shutdown it was playing a pivotal role in organizing protests, and since then has been a go-to news resource (so much so that even Google is leveraging it with Speak to Tweet).

Egypt Polyvore messagePolyvore

We received a PR pitch today from representatives of Polyvore.com. This site with "6.5 million monthly unique visitors" is the self-styled "web's largest community of tastemakers where people can discover their style and set trends around the world." It's a fashion-centric social network, at heart.

The email noted that "With limited access to the internet, Egyptians and their supporters are using whatever means possible to spread their message and rally support. People used Facebook and Twitter to organize protests, and they also flocked to Polyvore.com to voice their views, support those protesting, and express themselves visually." There were some accompanying links from various Polyvore users, stating their support for the cause. Some are actually pretty heartfelt and slightly eye-catching.

It's fascinating that the outpouring of support for the Egyptian cause has spread even to fashion social nets. But is PolyVore right to try to opportunistically leverage some attention from the matter? Has the site spent money paying a PR firm to spread this news, when it could have given the money directly to a charity?

Tricky digital ethics questions, centering on the most digital revolution attempt ever (should we have written this article, even?). Ponder them as you watch the one or two crazies chase that ambulance down a packed freeway on your commute home tonight.

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2 Comments

  • Jonathan Murray

    The terminology for this at Microsoft was "Citizenship for growth" and I would immediately distrust any company that claims different. Companies have a primary responsibility to maximize returns for their shareholders which means that any investment in citizenship efforts must be rooted in a desire to drive growth. In the end its about leveraging the profit motive to drive positive social outcomes. That is not a bad thing. Companies that don't make a profit tend not to be able to do much good in the world.