Wael Ghonim. Book Jacket photograph by Khalil Hamra/AP

The world’s most successful online community manager was in Seattle last week, and you probably had no idea.

Wael Ghonim, the founding administrator of the Facebook page that one year ago this month helped inspire 12 million Egyptians to topple its longtime ruler, spoke to a crowd of hundreds at Town Hall Seattle Wednesday about civic action, regime change, and of course, technology. His book, “Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power,” chronicles his experience leading to and during those most extraordinary events of the Arab Spring.

Ghonim, 31 and an almost reluctant icon in an understandably messy revolution, is careful not to credit himself or social media with much, or really anything. To nods and applause, he echoed the obvious: It was the people, not Facebook, who grew the revolution. It was young Egyptians, not one Internet-obsessed Google marketer, who moved a nation to do something incredible.

And yet …

Wael can’t say it, so I will. It takes passion, drive, and, yes, skill to turn an audience into a community. People fueled the revolution. Facebook, like any communication tool, spread it. But at the root of what would become a shockingly principled, decentralized movement was a master community manager whose every nudge and post influenced the direction that community would take.

The best community leaders make people feel like they did it themselves. The best community managers cultivate environments where they actually can.

His book should be required reading for anyone working with online communities, not just because he’s smart about community marketing, which — wow — he is, but because it’s good for the soul of every marketer to take a step back and remember that all these fun new tools we use to get people to like, try and buy things can also move people to change them.

Here are five key lessons from Wael Ghonim’s management of the world-changing “Kullena Khaled Said” (We Are Khaled Said) Facebook page.

1) Be the community you want to build

When Ghonim created “Kullena Khaled Said” in June 2010, another page had already formed in reaction to the brutal police killing of a young man named Khaled Said and was already drawing thousands of members. But Ghonim worried about its tone. “Khaled Said’s murder will not go unpunished, you dogs of the regime,” read an early post on the more aggressive “My Name Is Khaled Said” Facebook page.

“From experience I knew that such language would not help in making the cause a mainstream one,” Ghonim wrote. So “Kullena Khaled Said” spoke in the “language of the Internet generation,” as he termed it — decent, non-confrontational and colloquial.

“We are Egyptian youth who love one another, care for one another, and have a voice,” he wrote as page campaigns tugged at people to let go of their fear. By the critical protests of Jan. 25, people were ready for more. “Let’s show the world that we are not cowards and that we are ready to sacrifice anything for our rights,” Ghonim wrote.

2) Know the power of images

Helping page members break through their fear of speaking out was one of Ghonim’s earliest goals as administrator. The page’s first campaign asked people to photograph themselves with a sign bearing the name of the page, “We are Khaled Said.” Hundreds sent in photos and members thanked each other for their courage. After members participated in their first real-world activity, a “silent stand,” Ghonim posted every photo participants. And when the Tunisian protests resulted in the departure of that country’s president, Ghonim changed the page’s profile picture to an Egyptian flag with a Tunisian symbol.

“Each one of the images we posted carried much greater impact than many days’ worth of writing,” he wrote. “There is a difference between writing to urge people to do something and showing an image that proves it can be done.”

3) Work with everyone

In the page’s second week, Ghonim published its first survey, which asked members about their experience in the real-world silent stand. When a British member wanted to start an English language “We are all Khaled Said” page, he polled members and got their approval. Four-thousand page members responded to a survey asking what they thought of how the page was being run.

“I have always been a firm believe in engaging and empowering audience members, as that will increase not only their confidence but also their desire to promote the cause,” Ghonim wrote.

He also believed in working with other groups to promote the same ideas and causes, so much so that he was able to convince an administrator of the more aggressive “My Name is Khaled Said” page — which had 60,000 more members but half the engagement — to tame that page’s tone to more closely match what he saw working on his own.

4) Stand for an idea, not an agent

Ghonim had decided form the start that to spark real change, the Facebook page had to do two things: appeal to the mainstream young Egyptians, not to those who were already activists, and stay focused directly around the driving idea, not a person or a organization that sought to execute it.

“It was change, not individuals, that could unite Egyptians,” Wael wrote. “The merits of any individual could always be scrutinized and questioned, but no one is his right mind could question the need for change.”

When members seemed hung up on one or another facet of the idea, Ghonim posted statements or anecdotes that helped smooth the conversation. At one point, he tackled the defeatism he heard from some members with a story called “Abbas and the Administrator,” which encouraged members to encourage people to question whether they were the fictional Abbas — a “why try” pessimist, or the Administrator, a hopeful fighter. After that, members used the analogy to call each other out on their defeatism: “Don’t be an Abbas.”

5) Be selfless

The most surprising thing I heard from Ghonim was his answer to a question I posed at the Town Hall event about the power of anonymity. He had intended never to be revealed as the administrator of “Kullena Khaled Said,” which he managed anonymously for his own protection, but a 12-day detention, search and very public release as the revolution heated up last February made that impossible.

During Q&A, I asked whether he preferred his visible, outspoken role speaking for the cause to his days cultivating the community in obscurity. Ghonim didn’t hesitate. “I am less effective now than I was,” he said. While he was anonymous, he explained, he could speak purely for the idea without his biography getting in the way and engage with individual members as an individual himself.

The page’s very first post on June 8, 2010 showed the power of that approach: “Today they killed Khaled. If I don’t act for his sake, tomorrow they will kill me.” Thirty-six thousand members joined the page that first day. “The plural ‘we’ makes readers think an organization is behind the page, devising plans and putting them in practice. ‘I’ simplifies matters and opens the way for direct dialogue between the member and the page’s anonymous administrator.”

There are not always great reasons to be anonymous online, I realized, but when it comes to building community, there are plenty of good reasons to be selfless.

Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist in startups and media and a digital life columnist for GeekWire. On every day except Sunday, you can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

Comments

  • andrew

    got goosebumps reading this article

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I got goosebumps reading the book. Rarely do you hear the story behind all those little decisions someone makes when managing an online community. Because the stakes got so high so quickly in the case of Wael’s page, you can sense the weight each of those little decisions had in the context of everything that was happening …

  • http://twitter.com/aaBowlin Austin Bowlin

    This is an excellent article. Monica articulates not only how to successfully manage an online community, but perhaps more importantly, how one individual (leveraged by social media) can rally others and have an enormous impact on the world as a whole. Well done!

  • Filo F

    I think it’s a little early to conclude that this movement has done anything other than topple a regime. It looks pretty clear that the society is imploding and it remains a very open question whether what emerges is any more (or less) free and open and people powered than what came before. 

  • http://twitter.com/jennyzenner Jenny Zenner

    Thanks for sharing-though I’d hope your readership had some idea that he was here last week. It was all over NPR/KUOW and he made the circles at the tech spots in town.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I got the sense that the word got out more to the global causes/politics crowd than the tech crowd, @twitter-237828896:disqus , thus my lede: I wanted to emphasize that Wael has a lot to teach this generation of community managers and social marketers, a group I KNOW does not generally know him as the role model he should be. 

  • http://twitter.com/kadeeirene kadeeirene

    I’m amazed we got him here to speak and only wish more could have seen him. What an amazing feat this man took hold of. Proof of the power of the social movement. 

    Kadee

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      That book really got me to look at community management in a different way. Like I said, it’s one thing to move people to buy or like things. But to change them? In government? When people are too scared to act? Wow.

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