Why the revolution won’t be tweeted

Twitter Revolution - Flickr Photo by FrauleinSchiller

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting column in the October 4, 2010 New Yorker called “Small Change.”

Gladwell asserts that claims of Twitter’s role in various uprisings in developing countries (like Moldova or Iran) have been exaggerated.  He cited Evgeny Morozov, a Stanford-based scholar who notes that “Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist.” And he cites Anne Applebaum who suggested in the Washington Post that the protest “may well have been a bit of stage-craft cooked up by the government.”  Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy wrote in Summer 2010 about Iran: “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events of Iran right…Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.”

What’s more interesting about the article is Gladwell’s dissection of various events during the Civil Rights (The sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in February, 1960, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Summer Campaigns).

Gladwell notes that social change and protest requires huge sacrifice and understandably one only engages in such sacrifice for one’s close friends (strong ties).

What makes people capable of this kind of activism? The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.

This pattern shows up again and again. One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena. The opposition movement in East Germany consisted of several hundred groups, each with roughly a dozen members. Each group was in limited contact with the others: at the time, only thirteen per cent of East Germans even had a phone. All they knew was that on Monday nights, outside St. Nicholas Church in downtown Leipzig, people gathered to voice their anger at the state. And the primary determinant of who showed up was “critical friends”—the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest.

So one crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remembered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.

Twitter’s strength is in weak ties (which as Mark Granovetter showed are good for things like job search, and as Clay Shirky observes in Here Comes Everybody, the Internet can be great for engaging thousands of friends to track down one’s stolen Sidekick phone).  Gladwell also cites The Dragonfly Effect to show how these week internet ties can be great for finding a bone-marrow transplant.  But are these weak Internet ties useful in recruiting compatriots for the revolution: are we willing to be put in jail and protest just because we got a tweet?

Gladwell concludes:

Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, “What happens next?”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.

Gladwell’s conclusions generally resonate with our research on social capital.  We’ve speculated before about whether Facebook, for example, cheapens the currency of friendship, and whether you’ll bring chicken soup to your Facebook friends to say nothing of joining Justin Timberlake’s revolution just because you are following his tweets.

Where I may disagree with Gladwell is whether Twitter can’t have value in changing the calculus of getting involved.  Undoubtedly, you are typically recruited through strong friendships but whether to participate is a mix of loyalty to one’s friends, loyalty to the cause, and some sense of the chances of success.  Imagine that these potential recruits are arrayed in their willingness to take risks, from those most willing to take a risk to those least:  think of the bigger risk takers as being further out on a tree limb.  But how far out one thinks one is out on this limb is not dictated by God but by one’s perception of where others are.  This is so because the risks of taking action (protesting) vary inversely to the number of people involved.  If one or two people break the law, the government will imprison them.  If a million people are breaking the law, the government lacks the power and resources to prosecute and imprison them and will have to give up. We often have imperfect information about the size of the movement.  Seeing massive protest crowds (from prior demonstrations or a current one) can change the calculus but I think tweets might too. Tweets might provide would-be protesters with more information about whether government is able to respond, how they are responding, where else people are protesting, how many are protesting, etc.  And all this information can induce would-be fence sitters to get off the fence and protest.  But I agree that they are most likely to be recruited through trusted compatriots.

Read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change” article.  [Gladwell in the article also focuses on how some protests require a hierarchy, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and how the Internet does not make it easier to organize such a hierarchy.]


2 responses to “Why the revolution won’t be tweeted

  1. I have heard Gladwell go on this rant before, and I have to say I think he is going as much overboard as is everyone who is enamored with social media (and technology).

    Social media is not a goal unto itself – it is a tool. It is a mutli-purpose tool – it has allowed me for the first time to connect on an ongoing basis with old friends who I otherwise would not be as connected with. This has facilitated us getting together, planing parties and such. It is a great tool there. As well, it has allowed me to pontificate online, share media stories, funny videos. etc. My kids now spend more time in front of youtube looking up funny videos and music mashups than they do on TV. Social media beats TV handsdown for its interactivity factor.

    As someone who has been an activist and works for NGOS, has it made me a better activist? Maybe a better informed one, but I don’t sign on to more causes, nor do i come together with other activists because of social media. In fact, as far as I can tell, everyone ends up in their own little niche of friends, yelling and screaming at one another about those other people.

    So, for us in the developed world who have ubiquitous band width, it becomes an all purpose work/play/family tool. Does it make our lives better? Different, but not better. Does it mean that i become a better activist? Again, different but not better.

    Yet one thing that I find is that twitter and facebook can ease the isolation of those who have been silenced and marginalized. So, in all the cases that are sighted, it was the story of people whose struggle would have gone unheard, due to the focus of the main stream media, governments, etc. They were heard … that is a huge step forward .. and in some cases this changed the outcome. It doesn’t take the place of on the on-the-ground network, organizing, friends, etc, but the actual act of being “on the map” can’t be underestimated.

    The connecting is especially the case for people in the developing world, where in Africa for example, the uptake in mobile technologies is faster than anywhere else in the world. As someone who has worked with marginalized communities both in Canada and in the developing world for the past 25 years I have found these mediums to been key in challenging isolation. When I was in East Africa 10 year sago working in the slums , it was impossible to get a phone line out; now, i get FBed, twittered, and SMSed constantly by the youth I work with. I have written a lot on the impact that technology is having on the developing world – http://www.delicious.com/tag/pradical. This has changed for the better myself and the lives of the youth that I work with – it has helped break down the rich/poor, developed/developing relationship that is always present – i see pictures of their kids, no when tragedy strikes, share our joys. They are my friends in a way they never would have been without social media.

    So, I agree with Gladwell that we have to be careful in attributing the wrong outcomes to social media; yet, I would encourage him to look beyond his own social milieu, and take into the account those who have been historically silenced, and what these mediums mean to them.

  2. What’s the point of having instantaneous access to oodles of info from every nook and cranny of the planet if not to actually try and do something about it all?

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