“People’s wills are the sparks that can light fires,” says Beth Kanter, a Web pioneer who advises nonprofit groups on digital strategy, “and social media is pouring gasoline on it.” Certainly there were deep societal forces that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. And without the Egyptian addiction to Facebook—the country has 7.4 million users, making it the Middle East’s largest Facebook consumer—Mahfouz’s dare might have had little effect. But that’s just the point: Women’s influence online is growing dramatically, largely because of their affinity for social networks.
GLOBALLY, WOMEN USE the Internet nearly as frequently as men, but they spend 22 percent more time than men on e-mail, instant messaging and -social-networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Myspace, according to a recent study by the digital-marketing firm comScore. Although the under-24 crowd worldwide is still the heaviest user of social networks (in terms of time spent on the sites), women over 45 are driving the greatest growth. “Social networking is a new frontier that older women are embracing,” says Linda Boland Abraham, comScore’s chief marketing officer. “Men are doing so to a far lesser degree.”
In the U.S. and Canada, women spend 30 percent of their total time online in social networks, compared with 25 percent for men. North American women are more likely than men to share photos online (for example, on Flickr), swap information about health (Medpedia), collaborate with their children’s teachers (Parentella), get fashion advice (Fashism), play social-networking games (FarmVille), grab coupons (Groupon) and find restaurant deals (Yelp). The trend continues for women in the developing world: Latin American women spend 52 percent of their time in social networks, compared with 45 percent for men.
In repressive cultures, social media may be even more transformative for women, says Mallika Dutt, president of Breakthrough, a global human rights group that uses social media and online games to address issues such as HIV/AIDS, immigration and abuse. “For women who have severe restrictions on their mobility, this allows them to step out into the world in a whole new way,” she says. “We can’t underestimate the profound power and engagement that social media allows women who have historically had to really fight to be heard.”
In India, women trying to escape domestic abuse are using their mobile phones and computers to post personal stories on Breakthrough’s website, BellBajao.org (Ring the Bell), and find advice, resources and encouragement. In Saudi Arabia, the only country where driving by women is restricted, women have launched a Twitter and Facebook campaign—Women2Drive—demanding that freedom. One of the charismatic organizers, Manal al-Sharif, a cyber-security consultant and divorced mother of a four-year-old, posted a video of herself on YouTube in May. It showed her at the wheel, in black abaya and designer sunglasses, describing how the de facto ban makes her life impossible:
When I came to El-Shargiya in 2002, I was on my own. And I had no choice. I had to have a driver. I bought a small car anyhow . . . I got a private driver who I had to give a monthly salary. The first week, he got into an accident with my car. He didn’t know how to drive . . . My driver used to harass me. He’d adjust the rearview mirror to see what I was wearing.