- February 5, 2011
- 68 Comments
Time is always limited, but in these historic times, I wished to add perspective in the hopes of moving this important conversation in a productive direction.
Malcolm Gladwell continues his march toward dissension with his latest installment in the New Yorker about social media vs. social activism. Honestly, Gladwell is more than welcome to share his thoughts as it is a democratized information economy after all. I do find it alarming however, that he is wielding his influence through an equally influential medium to spin intellectual and impressionable minds in unrewarding and pointless cycles. Is he not listening to opposition or consulting existing research?
In that case Mr. Gladwell and the like, this is not for you. This is for the people who read your work and who knowingly and unknowingly contribute to the evolution of media and culture. Perhaps, we can then better understand our role within this information revolution + evolution.
In his piece in the New Yorker he asks, Does Egypt Need Twitter?
Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.
Indeed. In the end, it is not how revolutions are organized, it is why they arise and what they change that matters to the world. Without organization however, the revolutionaries of the future will be faced with either progress or defeat. As I’ve always maintained, this current information (r)evolution that we are experiencing at varying depths globally is less about the technology and more about sociology and how it is changing our behavior and society as a result. To ignore it or discount it is absurd and irresponsible.
Good friend Mathew Ingram published a very compelling argument to Gladwell, “It’s Not Twitter or Facebook, It’s the Power of the Network.” In this thought provoking post he cites Zeynep Tufecki, a professor of sociology, who studied the revolution in Tunisia and documented how to produce outcomes through “material,” “efficient,” and “final” causes.
The source of the debate is also its weakness, relationships and technology.
Gladwell questions the alliance between deep roots and strong ties. Ingram and Tufecki argue for the the power of the networks…they are not wrong. The only side not demonstrating authority is also its strongest voice. To which I point to a prospective slipping point and say with concern, “Gladwell, your slip is showing.”
As someone who has greatly studied how movements ranging from causes to commercial can and can’t be organized through social media, I would like to move the discussion away from tools and ties.
This is perhaps where the story gets convoluted and debatable. Technology aside, it’s our ties that dictate how information travels and to what extent. But, it is also the spontaneous fusion of strong, weak and temporary ties that align around interest or emotion that propels information across vast distances with far greater velocity. This impetus is the spark, the catalyst necessary for organization, communication, and also for engendering support. You need a powerful network for this to occur…
If unity is the effect, density is the cause. But to achieve density, bonds must be formed regardless of strength or longevity quickly around a shared mission or purpose. Density cannot be achieved if the network can’t supply the necessary resources. Well, as Ingram and Tufecki point out, the potential for activation exists within Facebook and Twitter. Social networks aside, the trigger for social activism is unquestionably built-in to the internet. It’s not a switch however.
Stowe Boyd is a social philosopher, webthropologist and a dear friend. He recently spoke out against Gladwell to teach, but also remind us about the importance of density in a network effect:
Trufecki and Ingram are on to something, but they — and Gladwell — miss something very basic about the nature of Twitter and other social tools, something critical to revolution. Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread.
At its core, Gladwell’s arguments are not about the way revolutions work, but a denial of the strength of social culture: the culture that the social web is engendering, wherever it touches us. Wherever we connect.
This is again, not about tools or ties, but the capacity for alliances to form based on connections and how information spreads across them. I would like to share with you some very interesting research from the Department of Computer Science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. In early 2010, the research team performed a multi-part analysis of Twitter. In their conclusion they found that Twitter is a highly effective way to filter and spread relevant information. It was the rapid fusion of ties within a densely populated network to activate the density required to trigger a network effect.
The research team used the unfortunate incident of the doomed Air France flight to visualize density and distribution.
This is a demonstration of how strong, weak, and temporary ties connected for a moment to ensure that the world united around this devastating news. I’m sure we would see similar maps if we analyzed the Iran and Egypt events where Twitter played a pivotal role in unification and dissemination.
In my work, I’ve found that it takes an exceptional incident to activate density in powerful, yet expansive and distracted network. But, it is possible, and to varying degrees, it happens every day. In instances where planning and design around action and outcomes were orchestrated, the results are proven incredibly promising and replicable.
This strength of social culture is only increasing in prevalence to the point where each day, it changes our behavior online and offline incrementally. For some, the behavior is advanced while it is starting to bloom with others. This is nothing new. But, it is this culture that we are learning to embrace that over time, moves us from our “comfort zones” in the middle to the edge until finally, the edge becomes the new middle.
This is a culture shift and a culture shock. Those who embrace their role as student in these times will earn the ability to lead us toward a new era of solidarity.
UPDATE: Sharing a very interesting picture from Mediaite with a simple, yet symbolic message that reads, “Thank you Facebook.”
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