A remarkable event happened last week. After 23 years of ruling Tunisia with an iron fist, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia. It was the dramatic culmination to a month of street protests across the North African nation.
The fuse was lit when an unemployed university graduate doused himself with gasoline, lighting himself on fire. Fueled by anger over growing unemployment (one-third of college graduates have no work) and rampant corruption, Tunisians took to the streets, confronting the repressive regime.
It’s no state secret that the government is corrupt. Relatives of the president and his wife have reaped vast fortunes and live in opulence. But documents revealed by Wikileaks added evidence to the simmering outrage.
Remember the secret U.S. diplomatic cables released late last year? Here’s one from 2008 written by an American diplomat in Tunis: “Corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.”
And there’s more: “The numerous stories of familial corruption are certainly galling to many Tunisians, but beyond the rumors of money-grabbing is a frustration that the well-connected can live outside the law. One Tunisian lamented that Tunisia was no longer a police state, it had become a state run by the mafia. ”
You can read the dirty details on Tunileaks, a site created by dissidents to expose state corruption. Although the government tried to take down the site, the juicy details have already circulated widely in the Arab world.
Tunisia, a former French colony, has a large middle class and an educated, technology savvy population. Since the protests began, organizers have used Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and blogs to spread the word.
The government applied its formidable censorship apparatus to block these channels with limited success. The key to the regime’s longevity was its ability to suppress information. Those days are over. The new interim government has pledged to dismantled state control of the media.
While it’s tempting to credit the Internet for the overthrow of the government, as one writer tweeted, “The Internet facilitates communication, but it alone doesn’t keep people in the streets for four weeks.” The courage of the Tunisian people deserves full credit.
As word of the uprising spreads, fear has rippled across the Arab world. Which dictator will be next? Protests have now erupted in Egypt, ruled by another iron-fisted despot. The revolution will not be televised; it will be tweeted.
Earlier this week, MySpace gave out pink slips to 500 employees, almost half its staff. While the Facebook universe is rapidly expanding, MySpace, the social networking site that lead the pack just a few years ago, is contracting, maybe fatally. The site has lost millions of followers and millions of dollars. It’s been a huge disappointment for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which bought the site for $580 million in 2005. Rumor has it that the site may be up for sale.
What accounts for the spectacular flame-out of the once high-flying site? Choose your favorite theory: The quest for profits squelched innovation; becoming part of a huge corporation made MySpace less nimble; moving headquarters from a Santa Monica loft to a Beverly Hills high-rise created a culture clash; a fickle public abandoned the site in search of the next new thing; there was “white flight” from the urban chaos of MySpace to the more manicured suburbaness of Facebook.
Regardless of the reasons, MySpace may become another Internet footnote. Of course it will be in good company, as the electronic landscape is littered with the wreckage of companies that soared, then crashed and burned. Remember Netscape, AltaVista, AOL? They all dominated at one point, only to see their fortunes vanish.
Not too long ago, Microsoft was considered by some to be the Evil Empire, only to be eclipsed by Google. Now Facebook is having its day in the sun, surpassing Google as the world’s most visited site. How long it will hold the record is anyone’s guess. But I think it’s a fair bet that it won’t be very long. As technology speeds up modern life, the life cycle of technology companies grows ever shorter.
Maybe a leaner MySpace will manage to soldier on, but it’s doubtful it can recapture its former coolness.