The day Spain understood Twitter

Some time ago my Canadian friends were discussing through Twitter which of them joined Facebook first. The dates were between late 2005 or early 2006. I didn’t jump into the conversation, because I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t join Facebook until September 2007. I shouldn’t be ashamed, since I was still early for a Spaniard. Spain has never been an early adopter when it comes to Internet, and this is an issue “we” (whoever works in web design, Internet communication, marketing…) have to face every day: from the slow and expensive Internet connections to CEOs and managers who won’t understand the importance of paying more attention to web contents and social media.

Luckily this may be changing. In early December 2009 Spain experienced the potential of social networks: One day we found ourselves following through Twitter a meeting between a collective and the Spanish Minister of Culture, straight from the table around where they were discussing to all of us.

Action in the Government and reaction in the Internet: #manifiesto is born

On December 2, 2009 the Spanish Government presented a bill to change a law which regulates copyrights on the Internet, meaning the creation of a commission (outside of the Government) with the power to ban any website that may be suspected of breaking copyrights. Basically, it would give a group of people the power to shutdown any website without the intervention of a judge, in order to fight the illegal downloads. Similar to any dictatorship, although it is not my intention to discuss the political consequences of this law.

Clearly most Internet users and on-line businessmen had a very negative reaction to this idea. Within some hours after the announcement, a document named Manifiesto en defensa de los derechos fundamentales en Internet (in English, Statement in defense of fundamental rights on the Internet) started to pop-up everywhere. It was created (although not signed) by several businessmen, bloggers and journalists who wrote it using social tools such as e-mail lists and Google Wave. In this document they expressed the reasons why the bill should be changed or even rejected, which are mainly based on freedom of speech and other fundamental rights, as well as the need to leave a decision of closing a media to the courts.

I first became aware of this document through Twitter. I happened to be following @JulioAlonso, one of the authors of the document, when he posted this:

Súmate al Manifiesto en defensa de los derechos fundamentales en internet, retwitea y publica: http://bit.ly/6Z3wZ4
(In English: Statement in defense of fundamental rights on the Internet, retweet and publish)

What happened next? Well, since I consider this person trustworthy I went to the link for the document he posted. I agreed with the contents of the document and did as what he asked of us: I published it in my blogs and retweeted the post. So did hundreds of people with messages including the hashtag #manifiesto. By lunch the document had been published in 50.000 blogs, there was a group in Facebook with the number of members growing every minute, and Google had already added more than one million pages about it.

Action in the Internet and reaction in the government: the Minister calls a meeting

Up to this point this is still similar to the story of any cool new video on YouTube, suddenly getting famous thanks to social media or forwarded e-mails. But the Government of Spain had reason to be scared: in a few hours it seemed the entire Internet was against this bill. And what was more terrifying, there was a common cause: the #manifiesto. This is the reason why the Minister responsible for this bill, Ángeles González Sinde, decided to have a meeting with the authors of the Manifesto and various people whom represent diverse interests on the Internet: journalists, teachers, bloggers and businessmen were on her list.

This was the first advice that social media gave to Spain and all companies should take: It’s not only the power to spread words, but also the power to make even a Government react. Within 24 hours since the bill was announced, the group of people leading the protest were discussing it face to face with the Minister herself. When has this ever happened? May it be a step further in democracy? And, surprisingly enough, Twitter still had more to show.

The meeting: the Government needs a geek

The morning of December 3rd we all woke up excited about what might happen during the meeting. We read the updates by the people chosen by the Minister to “represent” us: about how they met in a café near the Ministry to prepare for the meeting, what their expectations were, and when they finally went into the Ministry to begin the meeting. What was really surprising and exciting, was that no one from the Ministry thought to ban the use of Twitter during the meeting. Suddenly we were all inside that room, following the discussion through the tweets (with #manifiesto hashtag) of the people inside.

This way we knew how every second of the meeting went: the Minister arrived late and had to leave early, what was the Government’s position, what was being said… at some point we even got pictures that @JesusEncinar had taken with his cell-phone and uploaded to Flickr.

There was no need to wait to read the newspaper, to watch the news or to listen to the interviews on the radio. Even a press-release by the Government, published only one hour after the meeting, was rendered useless. All of them, the media and administration, were late because social media had been live. And the consequence of this is that we were able to form an idea of what had happened inside that room from the live messages on Twitter. What is more impressive, this gave all the more credibility to those using the social networks: they weren’t hiding anything and they weren’t preparing the text ahead of time, they just wrote the exact moment something happened. And the Government wasn’t there to present their argument.

It’s unbelievable that there wasn’t one person in the Government to foresee this, since the whole meeting was prepared due to social media. In the worse case, it would have been easy to ban cell-phones inside the room “for security reasons”, and since the Minister left early she would have been the first voice in the news.

I have no doubt that if the Ministry would have counted on a geek among the people involved in this issue, they would have gone “social” the moment they saw #manifiesto growing like a beast. It would have been fast and cheap to open aTwitter account for the Minister or to use the Government’s account (@desdelamoncloa) to have their word on the Internet and give their version of events… to fight #manifiesto where the war was taking place.

Consequences

As I write this article, three months and a half after the project law was presented, the fight is not over. Although the Government has been passing the project law through all the steps and is close to getting the approval from Parliament, there is an important debate going on.

Even though the Government is still ignoring these facts, the #manifiesto has been a constant pain for the Spanish Administration: Still today Google Blog Search finds thousands of blogs for  Manifiesto en defensa de los derechos fundamentales en Internet, the Facebook Group has more than 226.000 members and you can check that the hashtag#manifiesto is quite alive in Twitter, especially on the days any announcement is made about the new law.

But the strength of the #manifiesto is now alive also outside Internet. To begin, in less than 48 hours it made the Minister meet a random collective, let the whole country follow the meeting live and made the President to take back the Minister’s words.

And what is most important, it has become a link between all those protesting the law: any action taken and any comment made on the Internet include a reference to the #manifiesto. Thanks to this, opposites have become unified, there is a common cause to follow and to fight for, and this means the movement will not be dying out as time passes. Instead, it just keeps growing, and even some voices from the political party on the Government are starting to criticize the law and proposing to revise it. Meanwhile, the traditional media seems to have problems deciding if they should support the #manifiesto cause or if they should better look for their economic interests, more protected if the law is approved.

My brother decided to “join the conversation” after following the meeting in the Ministry. He said that there was no other option after being able to follow live the discussion. Because of that day my brother finally understood the power of social media… too bad the Spanish Government and corporations didn’t.

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