Category Archives: Evgeny Morozov

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.]

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Facebook as Big Brother (UPDATED 4/10/12)

1984-by-view-askewFacebook has morphed dramatically from their college and pre-college base.  Now only a quarter of users are 18-24 year olds (college and pre-college) and the fastest growth is coming from mature age groups.     Facebook is up to 845 million active users and their IPO capitalized on all the private information that users have inadvertently revealed.  And an Austrian student (Max Schrems), through the Austrian right to discover what information Facebook is collecting, learned that Facebook had 1,222 pages on him including posts he had deleted and his physical location when he posted.

“A Wall Street Journal examination of 100 of the most popular Facebook apps found that some seek the email addresses, current location and sexual preference, among other details, not only of app users but also of their Facebook friends. One Yahoo service powered by Facebook requests access to a person’s religious and political leanings as a condition for using it. The popular Skype service for making online phone calls seeks the Facebook photos and birthdays of its users and their friends.”

The fundamental equation of Facebook is that it provides a free service, funded by Facebook freely distributing the reams of personal information that users reveal about themselves and which Facebook makes available to application developers, advertisers and the like.

Discussing the social implications and privacy, Jeesi Hempel writes in Fortune magazine:

“At times it may seem hard to reconcile Zuckerberg’s lofty aspirations for Facebook with the utterly commonplace content that users create on the site. Consider 25 Random Things, a new take on the chain letter that has grown so popular it was written up in the New York Times Style section. You list 25 supposedly random things about yourself and send the note on to 25 of your friends (who are supposed to do the same), but your randomness also ends up on display to any gawker who may be surfing your profile. The items range from the banal (No. 17: I never, ever, ever throw up. Like five times in my adult life) to the intimate (No. 2: I knew I was gay in the sixth grade but didn’t tell anyone until I was 19). The feature is high profile – some 37,500 lists sprang up in just two weeks – but taken as a whole it just seems like a lot of user-generated babble.  [Note: Slate had a recent post about how 25 Random Things spread in a style approximating a natural virus.]

“Yet it is that very babble that makes Facebook so valuable to marketers. Imagine if an advertiser had the ability to eavesdrop on every phone conversation you’ve ever had. In a way, that’s what all the wall posts, status updates, 25 Random Things, and picture tagging on Facebook amount to: a semipublic airing of stuff people are interested in doing, buying, and trying. Sure, you can send private messages using Facebook, and Zuckerberg eventually hopes to give you even more tools to tailor your profile so that the face you present to, say, your employer is very different from the way you look online to your college roommate. Just like in real life. But the running lists of online interactions on Facebook, known as feeds are what make Facebook different from other social networking sites – and they are precisely what make corporations salivate.”

Facebook users get to “curate their stream” – the flow of information about changes individuals have made to their Facebook page that goes to their social networks on the site.Individuals on Facebook have two feeds: a personal field that logs changes you have made to your own site (a photo, a status update, a video post) and a second feed that tracks all the

“interactions your friends are having (and alerts friends to updates you’ve made on your personal feed). If your brother RSVP’d to a dinner party, for example, you might be notified about it, even if you weren’t invited to attend. And if you change your profile photo, it may let your brother know. Like Facebook itself, the feeds are subject to the network effect: The more data you share and interact with, the more robust your news feed becomes….

The information that pops up is partly a result of controls you establish in your privacy settings and feedback you provide to Facebook. But Facebook also can track your behavior, and if the site notices you’re spending a lot of time on the fan page of a certain movie star, for example, it will send you more information about that celebrity.

Kind of Big Brother-ish, and a marketer’s wet dream.The irony is that despite the use of tracking this personal information to sell you things, users sense that they are not being watched because there is not so much advertising currently on Facebook.It’s almost like baiting a bear by getting it comfortable feeding nonchalantly at a location before one drops the trap. And on Facebook there is no retracting all the personal information that users have left on Facebook about how they know Jane, or their e-mail chatter with friends, or who is in their inner and outer circle based on number of shared friends or who they share their personal feeds with.  That’s all stored on Facebook servers somewhere deep within the enterprise.

Moreover, users’ desire for privacy and Facebook’s desire to know with whom they are dealing often collide.  Facebook has recently actively fought the right of users to use pseudonyms (even for Arab Spring activists or Salman Rushdie).  As someone interested in social capital, I do think there is another side to this story (although I’m not at all sure this is what is motivating Mark Zuckerberg).  Online interactions that are anonymous are far more likely to be vitriolic and interfere with users investing heavily in preserving their online reputation.  If one can lie, or cheat, or flame, and no one knows that it is you, many studies have shown that lying or cheating or flaming is more widespread.

We may be six degrees of separation from anyone else in the world, but only only degree of separation from Big Brother wearing the mask of Facebook.

Facebook is walking a fine line as much of their market value will go up in smoke if they lose user trust.  It is for this reason that several years back they put new changes in the site to a vote in which 30% of their then user base (or 60 million users) had to approve the changes.

This loss of privacy is more concerning, considering  just how many people this affects and how widely users use Facebook to post pictures, posts, links, and friendship patterns that reveal lots about themselves that they probably wouldn’t feel comfortable posting to the world.

Fortune magazine notes how Facebook dramatically shrunk the amount of time to reach 150 million users or sell 150 million units.  Phones took 89 years, televisions took 38, cellphones took 14, iPods took 7 years and Facebook took only 5.  [Fortune doesn’t focus on the fact that the population is larger now so getting to 150 million users or units is easier and that Facebook is aided by the fact that it is free, but Facebook’s growth was impressive nonetheless.]

In 2009, Facebookers spent 169 minutes a month on average (or almost 3 hours) on the site and this increased rapidly.   Fortune doesn’t present a graphic but I assume that there is a group of manic Facebook users that spend 3-5 hours a day on the site or more and some users who use it very rarely.  Facebook acknowledged several years back that less than 10% of users, although still a sizable 15 million folks, do update their status every day (and this is up almost 400% from 2010 while over the same period the number of users was up only 75%, so the growth wasn’t just coming from more users ).

Zuckerberg’s vision is to have Facebook be a “social utility” where “one day everyone would be able to use it to locate people on the web “ David Pogue has an interesting story showing how this is starting to come true: a woman who found a wallet in a NY cab was able to track the wallet’s owner down on Facebook when she couldn’t through 411.  But equally the reality is that it can and is being used not just to locate people on the web, but to sell everything about them to others.

Read other posts about the social implications of Facebook.

See New York Magazine’s, “Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?” (4/5/09) (describing how Julius Harper’s group on Facebook, protesting Facebook’s privacy policies, swelled to almost 150,000 members

Read the interesting Fortune Cover Story, “How Facebook is Taking Over Our Lives”  by Jessi Hempel  (3/2/09)

Facebook Is Using You” (Lori Andrews Op-Ed, NYT, 2/4/12) that notes that information revealed on Facebook can hurt you down the road in mortgage applications, job interviews, etc.

Read Lori Andrews’ I Know  Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy (2012).  [NYT review of book here.]

Read “Selling You on Facebook” (WSJ, 4/8/12 by Julia Angwin and Jeremy Singer-Vine)

And if you want to laugh about it, see the Onion’s satire “Mark Zuckerberg Is a CIA Agent “.  Laughing aside, the CIA has purchased a stake in Q-Tel and Visible Technologies to actually listen in on social media (including YouTube, blogs,  tweets, etc.) and the  CIA has admitted to using social media software in recruiting operatives.

Obama Information Czar and Nudge co-author Cass Sunstein suggested in a 2008 paper “Conspiracy Theories” with co-author Adrian Vermeule that government might “cognitively infiltrate” social networks to help unveil conspiracy theorists and change their minds.