Editor's note: Micah L. Sifry is editor of techPresident.com and author of the new book, "WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency".
(CNN) -- "People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the internet came along."
--Malcolm Gladwell, February 2
"This is the revolution of the youth of the internet, and now the revolution of all Egyptians."
--Wael Ghonim, February 7
As we watch, transfixed by the sights and sounds of jubilation in the streets of Egypt, the question on many people's minds is: How did this happen? But a far better way to ask that question is: Who organized this, and how?
Movements for social change don't just "happen." Too often, the media reports on them the way we talk about the weather or chemistry: Protest is said to "flare up," "gather steam" and "boil." Other times movements are said to take a country "by storm" or "peter out."
Having grown up on such empty descriptions, it's not surprising that we're hearing so much today about Egypt's "Facebook revolution" or its "Twitter revolution."
Lacking any real knowledge of the forces on the ground, too many media outlets have offered us a view from afar, where some shiny new tools of communication are made out to be more important than the people doing the communicating and the messages and tactics they have chosen to use.
The role of the internet in Egypt's revolution has definitely been overstated. If you look at the available data on the degree of internet penetration in the country as well as the number of mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people, the percentage of population under age 15 and the degree of urbanization, some intriguing facts jump out.
Internet access in Egypt is barely 20%, much less than Tunisia or Iran, according to InternetWorldStats.com. Mobile phone usage is much higher, at about 40%. And that number has skyrocketed in recent years, from barely 6% in 2003, according to http://www.mobileactive.org/, a nonprofit that tracks mobile usage worldwide.
Egypt is also a very young and urban society. About a third of the population is under 15 (compared to 25% in Tunisia and 28% in Iran), says the Population Reference Bureau. And close to half live in cities, where the gap between rich and poor is more extreme and gratingly visible than in the rural parts of the country. These elements -- a rising level of connectivity combined with an exploding population of young people facing declining economic prospects since the global recession began a few years ago -- are probably the most critical underlying factors explaining Egypt's explosion.
That said, Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim has a point -- and Malcolm Gladwell's dismissive comment about the role of social media in social change was a case of over-correcting for the media's failings.
The internet has made a big difference in Egypt. For years, the country's secret police and state-controlled media have very effectively suppressed most dissident activities. Without the relatively free arena of online social networking sites and tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, young Egyptians like Ghonim could not have built the resilient and creative force that finally toppled Hosni Mubarak.
As he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Friday, "We would post a video on Facebook and it would be shared by 50,000 people on their walls in hours." Alternative media channels are absolutely vital for freedom movements.
But the "youth of the internet" were more than that. A nucleus of human rights activists, lawyers, bloggers and labor organizers have been hard at work for several years in Egypt, risking prison, holding small rallies and vigils, raising consciousness online by distributing pictures and video of torture victims, writing protest manuals, mobilizing lawyers to petition arrested comrades out of prison and studying the lessons of other failed uprisings -- like the protests after Iran's 2009 election -- in order to develop more nimble and less controllable strategies to build their movement.
Along the way, they devised some ingenious hacks around the police state, like using mobile phones and Twitter to share information about imprisoned activists and using international phone lines for sending text messages. They learned how to make more effective online videos with the help of Peter Gabriel's human rights group Witness, and how to use open source mapping tools with the help of the Kenyan nongovernmental group Ushahidi.
As Maryam Ishani writes in Foreign Policy magazine, "By the time the November 2010 elections (in Egypt) rolled around, a new mechanism was in place." The theory was that widespread election fraud would set off an Iran-like wave of protests, but apparently Egyptians were inured to stolen elections. It would take the events in Tunisia in December, where a peddler named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest corruption, stirring mass protests there (which were also organized by online social network activists) to finally push Egyptians into the streets.
"If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet," Ghonim said Friday.
Well, if you add a free and open internet to a society with a large number of young people, give a majority of them mobile phones, and fail to offer them any chance of economic and social advancement, you will have ripened the conditions for changing the world. But small groups of dedicated and organized people still have to make it happen. Like Margaret Mead once said, nothing else ever has.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Micah L. Sifry.