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How did Time's Person of the Year use social media?

How Facebook, Twitter, and other outlets shaped The Protester.

The Protester is Time Magazine's 2011 Person of the Year. It always feels like a bit of a cop-out when Time doesn't choose a particular person and goes with a concept or a generalization. But in this case, Time might have a point. The Protester, whomever we choose to believe him or her to be, had a big year. There were protests in Africa and the Middle East as well as plenty of protests across the United States as "Occupy" became as much a noun as a verb.

Social media was a major factor in all these protests. More so than any other time in world history, ours is a time when an average person can make his or her voice known around the world instantly.

But not all social platforms were used equally. Jillian York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and she says tweets played a limited role in the Arab Spring protests. "This year, we've seen Twitter used primarily to get the word out. People use hashtags to focus around certain topic," she says. So you might see a keyword preceded by a # sign and then follow the link that appears to read all tweets that use that topic. #jan25, for instance, signifies the first major protest in Cairo and was used as a catch-all for Egyptian protests after that.

Speaking of Egypt, York says Facebook also played a role in the protests there. "There's been a lot of talk about how it's used to organize," says York, "and it's definitely true that in Egypt, the 'We Are all Khaled Said' page, the very famous one, was used to get people out there on the streets for those initial protests, but Facebook is not necessarily that effective when people use it to organize a protest out of the blue. We've seen a lot of protests actually not come to fruition when organized on Facebook."

The more effective organizing, says York was done by online networks that fly more below the radar. "Anything that is not public content," she says, "so email. BlackBerry Messenger. Even Google documents. I saw a really great Google doc early on in the Egyptian protests where people had created this document explaining the next day, what to do with tear gas, how to handle that, what to do if you see this person in need."

Back at home, the ongoing Occupy protests are highly plugged in. "This movement is punching above its weight because of how well it's using every tool in the toolbox," says Micah Sifry of Personal Democracy Media. He says now that Occupy has all these tools, the movement needs to figure out what to do next. "The big challenge is okay -- you can use the Internet to mobilize people for protests against something, what about mobilizing people for something else? The glimmer I see is people are developing a commitment to sharing. The alternative to greed is sharing. And so, they're also using social media and social networking to support each other. So, if you're not going to get help from the government, if you're not going to get help from big business, the least you can do is help each other."

Also in this program, a visit from our video game guy Ben Kuchera of Ars Technica. He's been playing SpellTower, a word game app for iPhone and iPad. It's a sort of Tetris meets Scrabble kind of affair and it's designed by a guy who hates word games. Still, I can't stop playing it.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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