In the Arab world this winter, social media proved that it can facilitate rebellion and even topple regimes. Now it faces a much harder challenge. Can social media help to build new governments?
The wiki revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt happened so fast that the positive forces of change have no vanguard, or organizations enabling them to take power. The organizations with the muscle to form political parties and win an election often seek to drive society backwards.
Transitioning to democracy won't be easy. It's one thing to bring down a government. Far harder is the challenge of building a positive consensus around a new form of government. That requires an informed public, a collective will, and an ability to accept compromise. It also demands a leadership that is secular, democratic and inclusive of the young people and women that courageously helped bring down the old regimes.
Social media might seem an unlikely place to start. Facebook updates, tweets and text messages might seem to be too superficial to sustain a substantive discussion about the values and governance of a new society. What's more, many citizens in Arab countries are not yet online. But these social media tools could be far more useful than people realize.
The Internet offers a new platform for people to collaborate and think seriously about what kind of government they want. Enabling people to discuss political issues openly, without fear of retribution from the top, would help to build the active political culture that is vital for a workable democracy. It's an essential first step toward an election, and along the way it can bring into the discussion people who have been excluded so far.
But how? Consider a digital brainstorm, an online discussion involving the whole country. Digital brainstorms have been used extensively in the private sector -- by IBM, for example, when it held one for 400,000 people. So why not hold a digital brainstorm to talk about a new form of government in Arab countries?
Here's how it could work. In Egypt, a brainstorm could be led by five Arab-speaking scholars of politics. One could propose a Turkish style democracy, another a French constitutional structure, another a U.S.-style approach, another a British parliamentary democracy, and another a strict sharia structure.
Over several weeks, let them inform the public of the advantages and disadvantages of the different systems, debate the choices very publicly -- on the radio, TV or internet video -- inviting comments and questions. The goal: taking into consideration the unique characteristics of Egyptian society, and what can be drawn from other democratic examples to distil down fundamental points of agreement. Maybe they won't come up with a comprehensive solution but at least the interested public would hear concrete ideas, debate the choices and look to possible compromises.
Or what about holding a challenge to describe some of the founding principles of the new society? Public challenges have been hugely successful in the past. Charles Lindbergh in 1927 won the $25,000 Orteig prize for flying nonstop from New York to Paris, a seminal event that helped to launch the modern aviation industry. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, is offering $25 million in exchange for a commercially feasible way to remove greenhouse gases from the earth's atmosphere. Netflix conducted a global challenge to anyone who can improve the company's automated movie recommendation algorithm.
Governments are beginning to hold challenges, too. The British Columbia government recently encouraged Canadian software developers by making available hundreds of its best climate data-sets and asking for innovative web-based and mobile apps that could raise climate-change awareness and inspire action. The government put up $40,000 in prize money. One of the winning apps helps students manage their carbon footprints. In Boston, the city launched a contest to attract start-ups to the waterfront. This competition invites businesses to compete for a $25,000 prize by promoting their business plan on a web-based forum. Entrepreneurs, innovators, stakeholders and the general public are encouraged to vote on these submissions.
Challenges and digital brainstorms are working elsewhere, so why not use them in Arab countries to get the public thinking about the kind of society they want to live in? People could be invited to submit a short essay, or perhaps a two-minute video, which could be posted online. The public could pick the winner.
What are the alternatives? A large constituent assembly especially convened for constitution making, or endless negotiations among self-appointed interest groups behind closed doors? We have seen how long it took Iraq to form a government, even with a constitutional framework in place. How will the tens of thousands regularly massing in Cairo's Tahrir Square have an opportunity to be part of finding the solution, feeling some responsibility for the result? Will a small clique try to impose a solution? Will some demagogue fill the void by stirring up divisive emotions?
History is full of such examples. That's why we should encourage the use of social media to change this story's ending by engaging people in a discussion about their collective future, perhaps for the first time.