Tag Archives: malcolm gladwell

Macolm Gladwell: Goliaths beware?

Flick/cc/craigdamlo

Malcolm Gladwell’s next book will be  David and Goliath (2013, Little Brown).

I haven’t read the book yet, but he wrote a related article in the New Yorker entitled “How David Beats Goliath” detailing that Davids (underdogs) win a surprising 1/3 of the time against much stronger Goliaths.  The article highlighted a poorly-trained California girls’ basketball team who reached the state finals through unconventional  defense like the press. [The article generated some controversy with Gladwell responding to some concerns about Rick Pitino.] Gladwell might have, but didn’t discuss Grinnell Basketball’s innovative strategy to take on better teams of running all out, “run and gun” and substituting in new players every 5 minutes so the team was always fresh.

In an interview with New Yorker’s, Nicholas Thompson in Canada in October 2012, he noted that “Traits that we consider to be disadvantages aren’t disadvantages at all. … As a society, we depend on damaged people far more than we realize. … They’re capable of things the rest of us can’t do [because] they look at things in different ways.”

One key factor in underdog’s success (in business or in life) is employing disruptive strategies that exploit their stronger opponent’s weaknesses. They often move quickly, lay low, channel the opponent’s energy against him or herself, or figure out dimensions along which their Goliath opponent will be slow to change.   [Looks like it might help reprise some of the theories of Sun Tzu's The Art of War.]

He focuses on events like Americans and Soviets losing to Afghanistan. the Americans losing to the Viet Cong, or Steve Jobs vaulting out of nowhere and overtaking wealthy Xerox.  Or Cezanne, who originally was a “failed painter” but comes from behind.  His book relates a bit to Randy Pausch’s advice that barriers are not put up to keep people from their goals but to separate out those who really want something from those who don’t.  [He might also have added to his list the success of the American minutemen in defeating the much better trained and funded British troops through a combination of knowing the terrain, early guerrilla warfare [hiding behind trees and rocks], wearing camouflage rather than bright red uniforms, etc.]

His mantra is embodied in the bible:

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. [Ecclesiastes 9:11]

He believes that Americans shouldn’t focus on getting into the best colleges.  [More on that when books comes out, although maybe he's generalizing from his rise to stardom from a degree from University of Toronto's Trinity College...]

I haven’t read the book yet, but his book flies in the face of our research that suggests that over the last several decades, there is far less equality of opportunity in America than earlier.   These low-income “underdogs” seem to be far less likely to break out of  the low-education of the families they are born into than Gladwell’s optimistic statistics seem to assert.  Look forward to reading the book…

Here’s an interview of Gladwell with CBC’s Terry MacLeod.

Click here for interview with New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson on Underdogs.

For more on Outliers, his last book, click here.

City-wide social capital building efforts [UPDATED 3/2/12]

Connector Project

People frequently ask me of examples of city-wide efforts to build social capital.  The are several examples in Better Together of Tupelo, MS and what Portland did with city boundaries. Beyond this, Seattle had an interesting program called the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods’ Neighborhood Matching Fund (that provided mini-grants for neighborhood improvement efforts where residents provided matching sweat equity), Minneapolis’ Neighborhood Revitalization Program (where city power was devolved to local neighborhoods to set priorities), and the interesting Front Porch Alliance under Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith (which has not been as vigorously advocated in subsequent administrations).

NYC Service

I’m aware of several more contemporary examples:  NYC Service (and the Cities of Service effort to replicate this), Philadelphia’s Connector Program, and Social Capital, Inc.

NYC Service

Inspired by President Obama’s call for a new era of service, Mayor Bloomberg in his January 2009 State of the City address announced that New York City would lead the way in responding.

After consulting with volunteer groups that worked in the arts, with students, and with seniors to learn what was most needed, they launched NYC Service with Diahann Billings-Burford as their inaugural Chief Service Officer.  NYC Service would enable NYC  to do more with less (since economic times were tight) and help harness volunteers in “impact service”.

NYC Service, in its several years, has achieved impressive results.  They have used citizens to vaccinate over half a million individuals against H1N1; engaged over 400,000 students in school-based volunteering; trained over 10,000 people in CPR who then trained additional New Yorkers; and coated two million square feet of rooftop under their “Cool Roofs” program with reflective white material to lower building’s cooling costs in the summer and help alleviate global warming.

They also launched the Civic Corps, a full-time group of AmeriCorps stipended volunteers who work in the Mayor’s Office or with city non-profits to help those non-profits mobilize volunteers.  The Civic Corps in FY11 recruited almost three quarters of a million volunteers, raised $1 million in cash and $6 million in non-cash donations, such as professional services, clothing, food and books.

Over 2,500 volunteer opportunities have been posted to NYC Service (their volunteer clearinghouse website) and they have garnered over 600,000 unique website visitors looking for volunteer opportunities.   Between their website and the Civic Corps, NYC Service has mobilized over a million NYC volunteers.

Although NYC Service does not directly track this, one of the most important outcomes (above and beyond how many success mentors they train or how many square feet of roofs they paint white), is the social capital and civic engagement that NYC Service instills.  Studies have shown that for many governmental objectives (say keeping streets safe or increasing academic performance), a civic engagement strategy (through neighbors knowing each others’ first names or parents being more involved in their kids’ learning) is more efficacious than a top-down government-funded approach.

NYC Service is undoubtedly increasing citizens’ sense of efficacy (that they can and are making a difference on issues like the environment or school readiness or dealing with truancy).  This increased efficacy is likely to cause more New Yorkers to intervene elsewhere (e.g., when someone has fallen on a street or is having a heart attack, or when a neighbor needs assistance).

Implicitly, much of what government does is remediating for gaps in civil society.  For example, social service and safety nets step in where family and neighbors don’t.  Police are necessary where social sanction and control is insufficient to police social norms.  Paid Fire Departments are needed when all-volunteer fire departments can’t fulfill their duties.

The social capital created by NYC Service is likely to have a significant impact, way above and beyond the value of volunteer hours (which are important and sizeable in-and-of themselves).  Greater local participation down the road is likely to lead to: a) better crafted and more responsive local policies; b) better performing and less corrupt government since the civic engagement and transparency will hold government officials accountable; c) greater net ability to change citizen behavior relative to an approach that relies on mandates (which are harder to get enacted and less popular); and d) potentially less of a need for government down the road, if engaged citizens do their jobs effectively.

Replication of NYC Service: NYC Service is already being replicated. Mayor Bloomberg held a competition (funded by Rockefeller) and a selection panel chose 10 cities from the cities that applied in June 2010.  These winners received $200,000 each to cover some of costs of a Chief Service Officer (which they had to hire) and received wraparound technical assistance (with work-planning, and project management).  Rockefeller and Bloomberg Philanthropies  announced a second grant round with 10 winners and awarded them in June 2010.

Bloomberg Philanthropies created a “learning community” around these 20 cities [see Cities of Service] with the goal of cross-fertilizing learning, experience sharing, and developing best practices.  The CSOs came together face-to-face 2-3 times during the first year, engage in bi-weekly group conference calls, and receive individual technical assistance.

Bloomberg Philanthropies created a “Cities of Service Playbook” that specifies a process they recommend for Cities of Service in coming up with a service plan.  CSOs in the first round were hired by May 2010 and these 10 were first convened in June 2010 and provided technical assistance.  The first group developed service plans in Sept. 2010.  The second group developed service plans by March 2011.  [The first group consisted of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville, Newark, Omaha, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Savannah and Seattle.  The second group consisted of Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Chula Vista, Houston, Little Rock, Orlando, Pittsburgh, and Richmond.]

New cities have also agreed to develop high-impact service plans that were not grantees in these two competitive rounds.   Some of the original cities  now have the CSO position supported by their budget or have indicated  they will include the CSO in their budget.

We’ll look forward to hearing more about NYC Service and their replication efforts.

Philadelphia’s Connector Program:

Started by Liz Dow in 2005 as the Connector Project and based on Bowling Alone and Malcolm Gladwell’s work on connectors and the Tipping Point, they are now in their third iteration, and have renamed themselves Creative Connectors. They identify leaders who use arts, culture and design to build community and create economic vitality.  Liz was struck by the observation in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” that “poverty is not deprivation, it is isolation.”

From their three years they have identified 10 traits in connectors (what they call “the Connector Competency Model”) and convened these connectors to connect them with each other.

Liz wrote up her experience in 6 Degrees of Connection and a fuller description of the ten competencies which cutely spell out “CONNECTORS”:

  1. C: Community Catalyst
  2. O: Other-oriented
  3. N: Network Hub
  4. N: Navigating Mazes
  5. E: Empowering Passion
  6. C: Constantly Curious
  7. T: Trustworthy
  8. O: Optimistic
  9. R: Results Achiever
  10. S: Self-Starter.

The list of creative connectors was generated by an online survey circulated by partner organizations and through an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  While these connectors are important in Philadelphia, 3 out of 4 of the leaders identified had moved to Philadelphia from somewhere else, and they generally work in the non-profit sector.  Creative Connectors also looks for leaders who:

  • “are hubs of trust, seen as trustworthy and credible.
  • use art and design to mobilize people around an issue.
  • foster one-to-one linkages among people they know.
  • engage with diverse groups.
  • consider the common good as well as personal agendas.
  • convey a vision that generates excitement.
  • think strategically, act decisively.
  • have founded an organization or program.”

Each Connector was profiled and NPR will do a video on each one weekly over the next year.

Philadelphia’s Creative Connectors is being replicated by some other groups including Leadership Louisville and the Portland Connector Project.  [And I've learned that a Boston connector network already exists, no relation to the effort in Philadelphia, see comment below about Boston World Partnerships.]

Last week, Leadership Philadelphia convened all of the Connectors since 2005 to thank them for their contribution to the community, to connect them with the newest connectors, to have them brainstorm on an issue raised in Knight’s Soul of the Community report, and to send them out into the community to make a Pay It Forward contribution.  The latter was a gift of $50 cash with the instruction that they give it to someone in Philadelphia who needs it, and to report back to Leadership, stirring up some grassroots goodwill during the holidays.

Leadership Philadelphia has also initiated a This I Believe project, partnering with the local NPR station to have leaders and then other citizens write and then read their belief statements on air.

Read a news report on their most recent meeting of all their Connectors.   The group that launched Creative Connectors, Leadership Philadelphia has a website here.  The Connector Project website available here.

Social Capital, Inc.

Inspired by reading Bowling Alone, David Crowley, whom I regard as an unofficial mayor of social capital, decided to launch Social Capital, Inc.

David was moving to Woburn, MA (his home town) at the same time as he was inspired to see what he could do at a local level to rebuild social capital.  He launched SCI and focused on trying to increase social capital in Woburn.

As David puts it: “The process of reconnecting to his home community after some 12 years of living elsewhere provided tangible examples of barriers to building social capital in today’s society, but also suggested that there were many community assets that could be harnessed through collaborative, community-wide social capital building initiative. The basic idea of developing a local model that could be replicated in order to address the decline of social capital and civic engagement was born.”

SCI Woburn was launched in summer 2002. In 2004, SCI expanded to Dorchester and in 2006-07, SCI began work in Lynn.  They have now expanded to Fall River and Milford.

SCI sees their mission as developing new “social capitalists” and believes it can train young people in the “unique set of skills and attitudes that enables them to collaborate effectively, make connections, bridge differences, and nurture social networks to make a difference. David is an ardent evangelist for social capital.  They are in the process of developing tools for would-be social capitalists and we will let you know when those become available.

In 2010-2011, here are some of SCI’s accomplishments.

  • SCI AmeriCorps members recruited over 2,500 community volunteers and a almost 70,000 residents of  Dorchester, Boston, Fall River, Milford, Lynn and Woburn have benefitted from their service. The AmeriCorps members & volunteers served almost 50,000 hours with a market value of $1.25 million (based on Independent Sector’s rates for volunteer service)
  • 240 youth and other emerging leaders developed Social Capitalist skills with SCI this year.
  • Over 4,015 food & clothing items have been generated by SCI AmeriCorps members and volunteers for people in need during these difficult economic times.
  • Over 12,500 individuals use an SCI community portal every month to connect with local civic happenings.

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube’s role in Arab Spring (Middle East uprisings) [UPDATED 7/7/13]

Flickr photo of Tunisian protests by marcovdz

Democracy has finally come to parts of the mid-East and Northern Africa. What has been the role of social media and the Internet in these uprisings?

First the facts and then some discussion of the role of social media:

Background: The “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Mid-East heavily relied on the Internet, social media and technologies like Twitter, TwitPic, Facebook and YouTube in the early stages to accelerate social protest. There are even allegations that the CIA was blindsided about the Egypt uprising by failing to follow developments on Twitter. There is less evidence that social media played a strong a role in places like Yemen (where Internet penetration is low) or Libya (where the government controlled Internet means of distribution and cracked down more effectively).

In Syria, where the “Arab Fall” and “Second Arab Spring” is still underway and the fighting has intensified and spread to Damascus’ suburbs. The role of social media was originally more limited in Syria, out of fear that the government is monitoring online behavior and because the government learned from Egypt and Tunisia and cracked down heavily on social media, but there is some evidence that activists  was starting to figure out how to use social media more  when the Syrian government temporarily shut down the Internet on May 7, 2013.  The Free Syrian Army [Arabic FSA actual site is here] is threatening civil war in Syria and claims to represent 10,000 defected soldiers operating in small bands across Syria; FSA has posted a YouTube video and claimed responsibility on Facebook for the 11/16/11 assault on the Air Force Intelligence building.  Disappointingly, Twitter and Google have also agreed to help the Syrian government and other oppressive regimes by enforcing rules that censor tweets or blog posts in Syria by blocking them out within-country.  There have not been large-scale protests in Syria, making it hard to gauge the level of anti-government support, since large number of critics of the Assad regime may be refusing to demonstrate out of fear of being injured or killed.  Because of the media blackout, it is hard to assess the role of social media currently in Syria, but this Google Hangout hosted by the Syrian American Council in DC held a conference video with activists in and outside the country, discusses their use of social media like Facebook, Skype or YouTube.

Tunisia:

The first domino was Tunisia where the underlying source of the uprising lay in government corruption, inequality, censorship and joblessness (even among the well educated youth).   The protests began in December 2010 with a college-educated street vendor’s (Mohamed Bouazizi’s) self-immolation in the coastal town of Sidi Bouzid in despair at the corruption and joblessness.  He died from the burns, but his protest, despite Tunisia’s strict web censorship laws, was rapidly fanned by online Internet tools.

“Because the protests came together largely through informal online networks, their success has also raised questions about whether a new opposition movement has formed that could challenge whatever new government takes shape.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a close ally from the president’s hometown, announced on state television that he was taking power as interim president. But that step violated the Tunisian Constitution, which provides for a succession by the head of Parliament, something that Mr. Ghannouchi tried to gloss over by describing Mr. Ben Ali as “temporarily” unable to serve.

Yet by late Friday night [1/7/11], Tunisian Facebook pages previously emblazoned with the revolt’s slogan, “Ben Ali, Out,” had made way for the name of the interim president. “Ghannouchi Out,” they declared…. And the protesters relied heavily on social media Web sites like Facebook and Twitter to circulate videos of each demonstration and issue calls for the next one.    ["President of Tunisia Flees", NY Times, 1/14/11)

"By many accounts, the new arsenal of social networking helped accelerate Tunisia’s revolution, driving the country’s ruler of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, into ignominious exile and igniting a conflagration that has spread across the Arab world at breathtaking speed. It was an apt symbol that a dissident blogger with thousands of followers on Twitter, Slim Amamou, was catapulted in a matter of days from the interrogation chambers of Mr. Ben Ali’s regime to a new government post as minister for youth and sports. It was a marker of the uncertainty in Tunis that he had stepped down from the government by Thursday." [New York Times 1/30/11 article]

“Other social media aspects of the revolution included Twitter updates with stories of state oppression, police brutality and unrest, and tweet feeds of imminent street protests….  Over 30,000 videos have now been placed on YouTube tagged “Sidi Bouzid.” [Online Social Media, 1/18/11 story]

Egypt:

Emboldened by the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the protests spread to Egypt on January 25, 2011 where opposition leaders declared it a “Day of Rage” on which protesters would take to the street against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The protesters included secularists, Islamists and Communists/ultra-left-wingers–a veritable who’s who of the Egyptian opposition.

While exact numbers of protesters could not be estimated, a flood of internet photographs and videos showed a massive presence in Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities.  These protests lasted 18 days and Internet-savvy protesters used Twitpic, Facebook and YouTube to disseminate videos and photographs and called on Egyptians to protest.  Protesters provided minute-by-minute tweets concerning where to assemble in an effort to outwit police.

“More than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the Tuesday [Jan. 25] protests, framed by the organizers as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. But the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition movement, said it would not officially participate, though some of its members joined the protesters in Cairo.”  (NY Times, “Broad Protests Across Egypt Focus Fury on Mubarak“, 1/25/11)

The Egyptian government originally engaged in episodic censorship. One video posted to YouTube and then shared on Facebook claimed to show Egyptian riot police being assaulted and seriously injured by protesters. However, the video was taken offline for a Terms of Service violation. There were also reports of YouTube censorship of protest videos. “[D]uring protests on Tuesday [Jan. 25, 2011] and again on Wednesday [Jan. 26], many reported trouble accessing Facebook and Twitter, the social networking sites that helped organize and spread news of the protests.” [NY Times]

The Internet crackdown began in earnest on January 28 when the government, amidst extremely large-scale demonstrations moved to fully restrict the Internet and cellular forms of mobilizing demonstrators.  “Internet and cellphone connections had been disrupted or restricted in Cairo, Alexandria and other places, cutting off social-media Web sites that had been used to organize protests and complicating efforts by news media to report on events on the ground. Some reports said journalists had been singled out by police who used batons to beat and charge protesters. One cell phone operator, Vodafone, said on Friday that Egypt had told all mobile operators to suspend services in selected areas of the country The British company said it would comply with the order, Reuters reported.” [New York Times, "Clashes in Cairo Extend Arab World's Days of Unrest", 1/28/2011]

Tahrir Square protest in Egpyt, posted on Facebook page

Slate has a brief description of how, despite the Internet and cellphone limits, some one million protesters were mobilized for the 2/1/11 protest in Tahrir Square using old-school tactics:

“Three young men from the ElBaradei Association for Change, a group that had been working to mobilize people and have them sign a petition to reform constitutional amendments passed in 2005 and 2007 that prevented an independent candidate from running for president, decided to take matters into their own hands. They would go into other neighborhoods and convince people to come to the square. “We’re going to go out on the streets and start screaming, ‘Down with Mubarak,’ and asking people to join us. Once we get about 1,000 or 2,000, we will move toward downtown,” Tawfik Gamal told me, as we walked briskly toward the subway.

A little while after we set out, word came that other activists had the same idea, so Tawfik and his friends headed to a different neighborhood. I decided to stick with our original meeting point. As I waited in front of a major Cairo mosque in a wealthy neighborhood, I watched about 100 people walk by.

In front of the mosque, carrying home-made banners and bottles of soda, a small group of friends had congregated. They were the affluent upper-middle-class on the march. One of them is Ahmed El-Diwany. An IT manager at the American University in Cairo, he had moved back into his parents’ home to be closer to the protests. He’s not sure when Mubarak will fall, but he is sure that he will. “Mubarak is a Taurus, and so he is stubborn. He doesn’t like looking weak—and he’s a general. Put it all in a blender, and it’s a lethal combination,” he tells me, totally serious.” [Slate]

Mubarak’s unsubtle crackdown on the Internet and cellphones, not only imposed great cost on the economy, but had the ironic consequence of actually radicalizing many  rural Egyptians into opposing the Mubarak regime. In any event, Mubarak’s countermove occurred after the dissension genie had already escaped the bottle and the revolution successfully ousted Mubarak.

“[With the internet crackdown,] President Hosni Mubarak betrayed his own fear — that Facebook, Twitter, laptops and smartphones could empower his opponents, expose his weakness to the world and topple his regime.  There was reason for Mr. Mubarak to be shaken. ” [New York Times 1/30/11 article]

On February 10, amidst unrelenting protests, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had ceded power. Egyptians have now voted meaningfully for the first time ever, although doubts remain about whether the protesters’ gains are being eroded.  And on May 23, 2012, Egyptians, in a historic election, for the first time  voted for a replacement for Mubarak (one year after his departure).

The Second Revolution: The situation in Egypt in mid-2013 is highly unstable.  It appears that Egypt’s second revolution has ousted Mohammed Morsi, but the situation there remains highly unstable and there are assertions that Morsi is corralling the military to put down protest, even after he has agreed to step down.  There is evidence that Facebook was used much more prominently in the second revolution than the first.

Libya: In Libya, while the revolution was ultimately successful in ousting Muammar Gaddafi, social media played a minor role.  Libya’s government maintained strong control of the Internet infrastructure, and Gaddafi as an ego-maniacal autocrat responded only to insurgent militia, once they were aided by NATO.

Syria/Jordan/Yemen/others: Other middle-Eastern nations fear the shadow of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and fear that youth uprisings spurred by social networking mobilization or more traditional mobilization are taking hold.  On Monday, January 31, 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unsuccessfully announced efforts to try to get ahead of a possible revolution there (in a WSJ interview).  Jordan pre-emptively tried to avoid the Tunisian or Egyptian result with somewhat limited success. (AP) The Yemeni leader agreed not to run again or hand the reins to his son. [Here is a great graphic showing the spread of the Tunisian uprising to at least 18 other middle East countries (through April 11, 2011), with four other countries having overthrown their leader (Egypt, Libya, Ivory Coast and Yemen[?]) and another (Syria) at a tipping point.  And this is the current state of play by country.]

Although the role of social media is much lower in Syria’s protest actions than countries like Tunisia or Egypt, individuals have risked their lives to use cellphones and small cameras to film atrocities of President Bashar Al-Assad’s crackdown on the protesters and upload these images to Facebook or YouTube, fanning international pressure on Assad to back down.  Assad has also used propogandistic websites like Bashar al-Assad and used social media to assert that protest videos are fake and that he has hundreds of thousands of loyal supporters.  Although only 15% of Syrians are online, activist LeShaque claims that without social media, the Syrian revolution would have been successfully repressed at an earlier stage, and notes that the government complains more about the media than the protests.

What was the role of social media?

Social media must work hand-in-hand with an ability to mobilize citizens.  It is far too easy to simply “Friend” or “Like” a movement on Facebook and a retweet is never enough. The challenge is to put boots on the street, as protesters in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya know only too well.

Everyone agrees that social media add new arrows to the quivers of social activists.  These social media can be helpful in: a) mobilizing protesters rapidly; b) undermining a regime’s legitimacy; or c) increasing national and international exposure to a regime’s atrocities.   Any use of these social media is likely to be more successful in a country that has some form of democracy; so far, the exit of Tunisia’s Ben Ali is the only example we have of social media non-violently ousting an autocrat.

Malcolm Gladwell observes in “The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” that successful social movements long pre-dated social media.  In an May 2011 interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s GPS (Global Public Square), he disputes the importance of social media in the mid-east uprisings and asserts that protesters could have organized in other ways, noting that East Germany overturned a government when only 13% had landline phones. Moreover, Arab Spring uprisings are occurring in places like Yemen with low rates of Internet penetration. Journalist Anthony Shadid comments on Syria that: “It’s not a Twitter or Facebook revolution. The revolution is in the streets, and it smells of blood.”

Advocates of the new technology point out that the fact that there were successful revolutions before the telephone, doesn’t mean that the telephone (or social media) might not enhance social protest or enable some protests to succeed where otherwise they would not have.

Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky, “From Innovation to Revolution”, Foreign Affairs, Response, March/April 2011  have an interesting brief exchange of their differing thoughts on the role of social media in revolutions.  Zeynep Tufekci, Why the ‘how’ of social organizing matters and how Gladwell’s latest contrarian missive falls short and David Weinberger, Joho the Blog, “Gladwell proves too much” had quite thoughtful blog posts on this topic, criticizing Gladwell for his dismissal of the importance of social media.

Philip N. Howard, assoc. professor of communication at the Univ. of Washington, and other scholars have analyzed the millions of tweets, YouTube videos and blog posts and concluded that “social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring…[The evidence] suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising. People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”

Wael Abbas (a prominent Egyptian blogger), when questioned on the role of  social media in the Egyptian revolution, said: “Social media is a tool. But revolution is the decision of many people. Once we decided to have a revolution, once people decided to stay in the square, social media was a helpful tool to call for support, ask lawyers for help. I will not give social media all the credit, nor will I take away all the credit from social media.”  He noted that the revolution is not yet over: “We’re not beyond the revolution. We now have a military junta, and people are being shot by armed officers, defending their interests. The army is protecting American, Israeli, Saudi interests in the country. They are protecting their own interests: the military aid from the US. The army is building factories and roads, and they’re not paying taxes, electricity or water. The labor for these projects are soldiers acting as slave labor.”

Wael Ghonim, who anonymously founded the Facebook site Kullena Khaled Said (“We Are All Khaled Said”) in sympathy with a 28-year old brutalized by police and called for the critical Tahrir Square Jan. 25, 2011 day of protest, wrote Revolution 2.0 to chronicle the role of social media in Egypt’s uprising and the suspenseful tale of trying to stay ahead of the police.  Hear Wael, a 30-year old Google marketing executive, talk with Terri Gross of Fresh Air here about the power of social media.  [Interestingly, he made real efforts with his Facebook site to make this interactive and build individual investments and commitment in this, by asking those who affiliated electronically with the website to post videos of them carrying placards reading "We Are All Khaled Said" and answer electronic surveys about their thoughts, and by indicating that if 100,000 took to the streets to protest on Jan. 25, they couldn't be stopped.]

It’s very hard to prove whether a revolution would or would not have happened barring the existence of social media [countries rarely offer themselves up for experimentation], but there may be some learnable lessons about some important dimensions in understanding how successful social media may be.

1) The underlying strength of civil society: Clay Shirky has an interesting piece “The Political Power of Social Media” in the January/February 2011 Foreign Affairs journal where he acknowledges the key role of civil society:

“The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. In contrast to the instrumental view of Internet freedom, this can be called the environmental view. According to this conception, positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”

2) Whether government is a democracy or autocracy.  Thus far in the Middle East, Tunisia is the one example where a social-media-tinged uprising has successfully ousted an autocrat.  This doesn’t mean that social media can’t be useful in bringing democracy, but if an autocratic leader is willing to brutally suppress dissent (as in Syria) and if outside countries don’t intervene (as they did in Libya), social media may have less impact than one would expect in bringing democracy to the Middle East.

3) The degree of Internet penetration and whether government controls the Internet infrastructure: Obviously in countries with low internet penetration it is far more difficult to use the Internet to mobilize local masses, although it may still be a tool to garner international support. In Libya, where the state controlled the Internet and telephony, it was far easier to block use of these social media than in a country where telecommunications were privatized. In Egypt, the government secured Vodaphone’s cooperation in blocking mobile communications, but foreign companies in the future may be less cooperative.

4) Sophistication in Internet censorship or misinformation campaigns: We are in the early stages of social media and the cat-and-mouse interplay between protesters and repressive regimes.  In second-generation revolutions, the state is becoming more sophisticated about Internet controls, making it look like the Internet is active, but slowing speeds dramatically so  video is ineffective or blocking certain words from appearing on trending lists or in search queries.  Repressive governments have alas learned from Egypt’s inept full-frontal blocking of the Internet. Regarding the use of misinformation, Gaddafi’s attempt to claim that a protest rally video circulating was actually a pro-government rally looked foolish.  Would other more sophisticated misinformation campaigns succeed?  Will there be fake groups that form in an effort to flush out activists for persecution?  Will government become more active in the Internet to try to direct protesters to incorrect locations where police are waiting?

5) Unintended consequences from state action:  Related to point #4, we are also in the early days of understanding what types of government crackdowns succeed and which backfire and wind up bolstering the opposition (as Mubarak did in his shutting down of the Internet).    Until we have a better handle on those dynamics we will be unsure of what the net-net impact of social media will be.

6) How intertwined social media is in everyday life:  To the extent that a society uses social media mundanely but deeply in everyday commerce and social interaction, it will be much harder for countries to effectively dismantle these without huge economic and social costs.

Beyond any initial revolution, Thomas Friedman pointed out in the NY Times on April 13 that starting the revolution may be the easier part. “In the Arab world, almost all these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious and tribal groups put together by colonial powers — except Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, which have big homogeneous majorities. So removing the lid off these countries may potentially unleash civil war, not civil society.

Friedman concludes: “That is why, for now, the relatively peaceful Arab democracy revolutions are probably over. They [first] happened in the two countries where they were most able to happen because the whole society in Tunisia and Egypt could pull together as a family and oust the evil ‘dad’ — the dictator. From here forward, we have to hope for ‘Arab evolutions’ or we’re going to get Arab civil wars.”

++++

Other links:

Tunisia:

Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, “The Role of Digital Media”, Journal of Democracy 22(3):35-48(2011) has good background of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in terms of social media.

- “Tunisia Protesters Use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to Organize And Report” (LA Times Blog, 1/14/11).

- See New Yorker, “Letter from Tunis: The Casbah Coalition” (4/4/11 by Steve Coll)

- See “The Use of Social Media Made Arab Spring Possible

Egypt:

- See earlier Social Capital Blog post on role of Facebook in earlier Egyptian uprising.

- As noted under the Tunisia section, Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, “The Role of Digital Media”, Journal of Democracy 22(3):35-48(2011) has good background of what happened in Egypt in terms of social media.

- Fast Company urged those interested in monitoring events to follow Egyptian journalist Mona el-Tahawy’s Twitter feed and the wall of the Egyptian opposition el-Shaheed’s Facebook account, which posted minute-by-minute updates from hundreds of Egyptian Facebook users including photos and news of the latest events. They also commended Blogsofwar’s Egypt Twitter aggregator for those who can read Arabic.

- See “How Social Media Accelerated the Uprising in Egypt“, Fast Company, 2/3/11.

- Read also “Facebook treads carefully after its vital role in Egypt’s anti-Mubarak protests” (Wash. Post, 2/2/2011).

- see, “Twitter’s Role in Arab Spring exaggerated, experts find” (The National, 5/1/12) [Citing Arab Media Outlook Study (2011-2015), commissioned by the Dubai Press Club.]

Syria:

See “Will Syria’s Revolution be Organized… on Facebook?“, Fast Company, 2/3/11.

Radwan Ziadeh explains why use of social media is much lower in Syria in “The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media” (7/11/2011)

Social Media and Syria’s Revolution” by Namo Abdulla (12/20/11)

- Syria Interview: Activist “LeShaque” on Social Media and the Syrian Revolution (1/15/2012)

Arab Spring generally:

- Clay Shirky did an interesting short interview for the Annenberg “Eye on the Middle East” program (Nov. 10, 2011) on the use of social media in the Arab Spring.

For a broader description of just how game-changing the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East may be, see Thomas Friedman’s “B.E., Before Egypt, A.E., After Egypt” (2/1/11 NYT Op-Ed) [likening the impact to Israel as being similar to the impact on the U.S. if Canada and Mexico were both going through revolutions at the moment]

- See also “Five Reasons why Arab regimes are falling” (Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2011 Op-Ed by Moataz Fattah) citing the fact that countries like Egypt have not leveraged physical capital (i.e., oil) into social capital for its residents.

- See also, Rory O’Connor (Huffington Post, 1/26/12), “#january25 One Year Later: Social Media & Politics 3.0″

Libya:

- See “Libya: How authorities have blocked the story” (BBC, 2/25/2011)

- See Deborah Amos (NPR) talking about the role of social media: “Revolution in the Age of Social Media, Deborah Amos

- Doug Saunders has a very interesting Op-Ed in the Globe and Mail discussing social networks in Libya and Egypt in 2004 and 2011 and contrasting the difference.  Excerpt:

Certainly, the Libya I visited in 2004 was low on social capital. It was the only Arab country I’ve ever visited where men didn’t gather in large crowds at street-side cafés to smoke and talk politics. This was illegal, and dangerous. Next door in Egypt, life for many was (and remains) a lonely oscillation between home, mosque and workplace, with nothing to bind people in a way that could change the country or its society.

Or so it seemed. But on that visit seven years ago, I noticed something else: Everyone I met under 20, even in fairly poor communities, spent their spare time at the Internet café. In the freedom of those places, in detailed conversations, I found teenagers forming intimate communities online, discussing cars and rap lyrics and sex and especially restrictions on Internet freedoms in neighbouring countries (Libya’s Net was wide open then), and often coalescing in physical meet-ups. And that was Libya, one of the least free countries in the region.

Those teens are now around 24 – and half of all Egyptians and Libyans are 24 or under. In the past months, we have seen them form extraordinarily resilient and tightly linked voluntary communities using those Internet connections.

A fifth of Egyptians and more than a third of Tunisians have broadband at home, and the Internet cafés and cellphone web services mean that almost everyone under 24 has daily access.

Dictators and Islamists also use the Internet. But the young opponents keep showing that their social capital is more robust than we’d ever imagined: In the past seven weeks, we have seen Facebook-organized rallies drive out the old-regime prime ministers of Tunisia and Egypt and replace them with movement-associated figures. The towns and villages of Tunisia and Egypt, as I reported this week, are being transformed by local democracy committees, which have become an unstoppable force.

That’s not to say that the Arab world’s connected generation are going to have an easy time building a democratic society. But they certainly aren’t bowling alone.

Designing games to save the world

WoW game screenshot - Flickr photo by wynter

Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, notes that the amount of time that young people spend gaming is already large and predicted to become extraordinary.  500 million people (mainly youth) worldwide spend more time gaming than in school and this number is projected to grow to 1.5 billion in a decade.  These 500 million noticeably already game enough to make them experts by age 21, according to Gladwell’s Outliers book that focuses on the importance of accumulating 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso.

So rather than wag our fingers at gamers, we should recognize what is great about game playing and why they do it, and then try to channel these skills and energy into saving the world.

Why they do it?

McGonigal cites an economist’s belief that youth are making rational choices to spend more time in virtual worlds since they are better than the real world.  She notes that there is no unemployment in World of Warcraft and hundreds of thousands of potential collaborators.  Youth can at any time participate in a mission that is constantly at the verge of what they can accomplish and be part of an inspiring story.  They get Plus-1 intelligence and Plus-1 feedback on their quests.

What do youth get extremely good at through video games:

1) expressing urgent optimism

2) forming a tight social fabric.  McGonigal believes that it takes a lot of trust to play games with people (since others stay in the games until they end, play by the rules, etc.)  [I'm not sure how solid this basis of evidence is, although McGonigal has interesting anecdotes and alludes to research, of which I'm unsure how scientific it is.]

3) gamers are in such blissful productivity that they are happier working hard than relaxing.

4) gamers take on an adventure with epic meaning.  [She notes that the second biggest wiki in the world after Wikipedia is the World of Warcraft wiki with almost 80,000 articles, which 5 million people access monthly.]

What is great about it?

“Games make it easy to build stronger social bonds with our friends and family. Studies show that we like and trust someone better after we play a game with them — even if they beat us. And we’re more likely to help someone in real life after we’ve helped them in an online game. It’s no wonder that 40% of all user time on Facebook is spent playing social games. They’re a fast and reliable way to strengthen our connection with people we care about.” [note: not sure what studies she is referring to, although apparently in some of her own games she has clearly observed such behavior.  McGonigal has said elsewhere that "Thirty minutes of playing a co-op game changes for an entire week how cooperative we are in real life....Just ninety seconds of playing with an avatar can change your odds for success in a real-world situation for 24 hours....The science shows that it doesn’t matter where you get your positive emotions; if you feel a positive emotion it has the same impact on your health and happiness regardless of where it comes from."] From “REVIEW — Be a Gamer, Save the World — Videogames make players feel like their best selves; Why not give them real problems to solve?” By Jane McGonigal (Wall St. Journal, January 22, 2011, p. C3)  [essay is adapted from "Reality Is Broken" by Jane McGonigal, Penguin Press, 2011. ]

Elsewhere McGonigal notes generally that “Studies [again not sure what studies she is referring to] show that cooperative gameplay lifts our mood longer, and strengthens our friendships more, than competing against each other.”  McGonigal also states “research shows that social ties are strengthened much more when we play games in the same room than when we play games together online.”

How to use it to save the world?

The key is to harness all the positive parts of gaming – concentration, motivation, hard work, inspiration — for positive ends. The challenge is not to ignore games but design games that make the real world as exciting as games and in the process give us knowledge and skills useful to solving real world problems.  She says that maybe we should spur developers by offering a “Nobel”-like Prize to the best invention of a game each year that helps solve a really important social problem.

Superpowers add up to superempowered, hopeful individuals.    The challenge is to convince gamers that they are also empowered to change the real world.  We need to make people’s rewards, feedback, motivation be as high in the real world.  We have to make the real world more like a game.

One reviewer skeptical of games (Catherine DeLange) noted that games are everywhere in our life and can be a force for good; “Before writing this review, for example, I went for a run. I was tired and felt like giving up after 30 minutes, but stuck it out for 45. Why? Because I knew when I got home I’d be docking my iPod with my computer and logging my run on a website called Nike Plus. The site not only tracks my progress and records my mood, but also lets me “level up” the more I run. Since I joined up, I’ve run 858 kilometres, so I’m classed as a green runner. When I hit 1000 km I’ll move up to blue, hopefully ahead of my running buddies who joined up with me. I know every extra step I run will get me further in this game.”

McGonigal has tried at least 6 games (World Without Oil; Superstruct; Evoke;  Cruel 2 b Kind;  Chorewars and Jane the Concussion Slayer – the latter to deal with a brain concussion from which she was recuperating).

She also recommends games that others have created.  The Extraordinaries provides players with a mission and instructions on how to solve it; the mission is tailored to the needs of a non-profit and the public like tracking and photographing life-saving defibrillators’ location.  The information is then uploaded to a First Aid Corps database, that tracks the location of publicly accessible defibrillators world-wide, in order to be available to help save lives.  Elude is a game to help caregivers understand what depression feels like: players complete the various game levels twice, the second made significantly harder to mirror the difficulties of achieving tasks while depressed.

1) World Without Oil: piloted in 2007 with 17,000 players.  Gamers are forced to challenge themselves to survive in a world without oil.  McGonigal claims that most players are actively continuing many of the oil-free skills they learned or invented in the game.

2) Superstruct: a supercomputer has determined that world is coming to an end and players have to invent the future of energy, future of food, health, security, social safety net.    8,000 gamers played for 8 weeks and came up with 500 out-of-the-box solutions to these problems.

3) Evoke with World Bank Institute (March 2010).  WBI invited folks in sub-Saharan Africa and in the developing world to partner together and test and develop their social entrepreneurship skills. Over 10 weeks, the gamers worked on 10 missions  addressing  issues like poverty, hunger, sustainable energy, water security, conflict, disaster relief, health care, education, and human rights. The stories were told in a graphic novel, that demanded local insight, sustainability, vision, and resourcefulness. WBI succeeded in attracting just under 20,000 young participants from over 130 countries. The collaboration among Evoke gamers in only 10 weeks led to more than 50 social enterprises being launched. “One example is this great project called Libraries Across Africa. The idea is basically a McDonalds of libraries that has money-making ventures (food, phone service) surrounding the library to make it self-supporting.

While McGonigal’s framing seems a bit pollyannish, for sure we should make lemonade of video games, even if we view them as lemons.  She notes that gamers are now gaming to escape from the real world. She observes that Herodotus said dice games were invented to distract Libyans from their famine; Libyans survived for 18 years, by eating one day and fasting the next all while distracted from their hunger by game playing.  Herodotus ultimately realized the famine was not ending so he directed the Libyans to play a final dice game and the winners were sent on an epic adventure to find a new place to live.  She notes that there is some genetic evidence that this is true: Etruscans appear to have left Libya to found Roman empire around this time.  McGonigal hopes and believes that we can empower young people to make an optimistic future come to pass.

See also earlier post on “Social Capital Games” where we discussed two of McGonigal’s efforts “Cruel 2 b kind” and “Chorewars.”

See also Gaming can make the world a better place (Jane McGonigal TED 2010 talk).

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.]

The Friendship Paradox: using social networks to predict spread of epidemics

Nick Christakis and James Fowler (whose research we’ve previously highlighted) is back with research that shows how one can easily use “sensors” in a network to track and get early warning regarding the spread of epidemics.

They took advantage of the “friendship paradox” to do so.  In any real-life network, our friends are more popular than we are.  [This is true mathematically in any group with some loners and some social butterflies.  If you poll members in the group about their friendships, far more of those friends who are reported are going to be the social butterflies.  If far more people reported friendships with the loners, they wouldn't be loners.  See discussion here.]

Thus by asking random people in a network, in this case Harvard students, about their friends, researchers know that their friends are more centrally located in these networks.    Then one can track behavior among the random group and their friends, in this case the spread of H1N1 flu (swine flu) among 744 Harvard students in 2009.

Those more central in these networks (the “friend” group) got the flu a full 16-47 days earlier than the random group.  Thus, for public authorities, monitoring such a “friend” group could give one early indication of a spreading epidemic; they could serve as “canaries in the coal mine”.  If the process of spreading was person-to-person rather than being exposed to some impersonal information (via a website or a broadcast), one could also track the difference between a random group and a friend group to predict other more positive epidemics, like the spread of information, or the diffusion of a product, or a social norm.

We write in general on this blog about the positive benefits of social ties (social capital), but Fowler and Christakis’ study also shows you that having friends and being centrally located has its costs: in this case getting the flu faster.  [In some ways, this is analogous to Gladwell's discussion in the Tipping Point of how Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen may be disproportionately influential in the spread of ideas through networks, although Fowler and Christakis are far more mathematical in identifying who these central folks are.]

The “friends group manifested the flu roughly two weeks prior to the random group using one method of detection, and a full 46 days prior to the epidemic peak using another method.

‘We think this may have significant implications for public health,’ said Christakis. ‘Public health officials often track epidemics by following random samples of people or monitoring people after they get sick. But that approach only provides a snapshot of what’s currently happening. By simply asking members of the random group to name friends, and then tracking and comparing both groups, we can predict epidemics before they strike the population at large. This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response.’

‘If you want a crystal ball for finding out which parts of the country are going to get the flu first, then this may be the most effective method we have now,’ said Fowler. ‘Currently used methods are based on statistics that lag the real world – or, at best, are contemporaneous with it. We show a way you can get ahead of an epidemic of flu, or potentially anything else that spreads in networks.’

Christakis also notes that if you provided a random 30% in a population with immunity to a flu, you don’t protect the greater public, but if you took a random 30% of the population, asked them to name their friends, and then provided immunization to their friends, in a typical network the “friend” immunization strategy would achieve as high immunity protection for the entire network as giving 96% of the population immunity shots, but at less than 1/3 the cost.

The following video shows how the nodes that light up first (markers for getting the flu) are more central and far less likely to be at the periphery of the social network.  The red dots are people getting the flu; the yellow dots are friends of people with the flu and the size of the dot is proportional to how many of their friends have the flu.

Good summary of this research and its implications here: Nick Christakis TED talk (June 2010) – How social networks predict spread of flu.  Nick also discusses some of the implications of computational social science, which we’ve previously discussed here under the heading of digital traces.  Nick discusses how one could use data gathered from these networks (either passively or actively) to do things like predict recessions from patterns of fuel consumption by truckers, to communicate with drivers of a road of impending traffic jams ahead of them (by monitoring from cell phone users on the road ahead of them how rapidly they are changing cell phone towers) to asking those central in a mobile cellphone network (easily mapable today) to text their daily temperature (to monitor for impending flu epidemics).  Obviously these raise issues of privacy, which Nick does not discuss.

News release of study

Academic article in PLoS ONE

James Fowler on The Colbert Report discussing the book by Fowler and Christakis called Connected.


Nick Christakis presenting a talk at TED — The Hidden Influence of Social Networks. (February 2010).  In the talk he notes that while almost half of the variation in our number of friends is genetically-based (46%), that another equally large portion (47%) of whether your friends know each other is a function of whether your friends are the type that introduce (“knit”) their friends together or keep them apart (what they call “transitivity”).  About a third of whether you are in the center of social networks or not is genetically inherited.  Christakis believes that these social networks are critically important to transmitting ideas, and kindness, and information and goodness; and if society realized how valuable these networks were, we’d focus far more of our time, energy and resources into helping these networks to flourish.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers [UPDATED 3/23/13]

Gladwell’s The Outliers (2008) focuses on success and the hard work, social context and cultural background that explains why some people excel and others don’t.  He has a related article in The New Yorker on genius (trivia note: a related post of his on this topic was rejected a long time ago by the New Yorker).  The Outliers seems better at explaining the success of some than in its prescriptions for how to get others to succeed.  [For more on his 2013 book, David and Goliath, click here.]

While The Tipping Point seemed to focus more on individuals and their power to change society, The Outliers focuses more on the social and cultural context of individuals to explain their extraordinary success.  As per vintage Gladwell, it takes a very eclectic path toward its subject, looking at everything from a genius who lives on a horse farm in Northern Missouri, to why Canadians are better hockey players (and which Canadians are the best), to why Korean pilots are more likely to crash planes.

In a nutshell, Gladwell believes The Beatles’ success was due to the fact that in their early years in Hamburg, Germany, they had to play very long sets at clubs, in a wide variety of styles, which both helped them to get in their 10,000 hours (see below on its importance) and forced them to be creative and excel at experimenting.  He notes the eerie correlation between who is a good pilot and what culture they came from.  He explores why a little town in Eastern Pennsylvania has had zero heart attacks.  He divulges that one 9 year stretch has accounted for more Outliers than any other.  He credits the success of Chinese math geniuses to the their harder studies and greater patience in problem-solving, stemming from a cultural legacy of long days of work in rice paddies; Gladwell contrasts the Chinese proverb ‘No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich’ with the American agricultural practice of letting fields lie fallow in winter, which led to a school year with summer vacations — a practice that works for children of the well-educated but fails children of the less-educated who give up many of their school-year academic gains over the summer. He credits Bill Gates’ success to early and sustained access to high-end computers.  As Edward Tenner notes on Slate: “Memo to overscheduling, hovering, upper-middle-class mothers and fathers: Keep up the good work.”

Gladwell gave a related talk at the New Yorker’s conference last year called “Genius: 2012″. In the talk Gladwell explains how success in the 21st century is less about sheer intelligence and more about collaboration and hard work to get to the level of mastery in a topic (which he says typically takes 10,000 hours).  Outliers describes how Bill Gates was able to get to 10,000 hours while still in middle and high school in Seattle due to 9 incredibly fortunate concurrences: among them, that his private school could fund a sophisticated computer in their computer club, and fact that he lived close to the U. of Washington, where he could use an even more sophisticated computer. Gladwell concedes that Gates is obviously brilliant, but still notes that many other brilliant youth never had the chance to become computer stars of Gates’ magnitude because they didn’t have access to these sophisticated computers.

In the New Yorker conference, Gladwell uses the contrast of Michael Ventris (who cracked the undecipherable code called Linear B of Minoans from Knossos on Crete) – and Andrew Wiles (a Mathematics Professor who solved what some thought might never be solved: Fermat’s Last Theorem).

Michael Ventris was the pre-modern genius: working mainly alone, in his free time, utterly brilliant and solving in a flash of insight after 1.5 years of free time during nights and weekends spent on the problem. Andrew Wiles, on the other hand, took about ten years to solve the theorem (close to those same 10,000 hours), and built on scholarly work over decades by a dozen other mathematicians. Gladwell notes that Wiles was less a pure genius and more a master at diligently working away at this problem, and building on the shoulders of other math giants. He also points to the important of hard work by showing that what separates better oncologists from worse oncologists was not intelligence or training, but how long they spent trying to find cancers from the colonoscopy results (*the mismatch problem*). [The mismatch was that oncologists often chosen for their brilliance and how fast they could examine the colonoscopies.] Gladwell notes that he thinks we need to think more about how to get a dozen Andrew Wiles than one Michael Ventris and thus we need to focus on *capitalization* (how some groups, like Chinese-Americans, are better able to translate given levels of IQ into managerial experience at 33% higher rates than White Americans.)

Speaking at a recent PopTech conference in Camden Maine in 2008, after explaining America’s abysmal capitalization rate, Gladwell’s gloom and doom gave way to optimism. “We have a scarcity of achievement in this country, not because we have a scarcity of talent. We have a scarcity of achievement because we’re squandering that talent. And that’s not bad news, that’s good news, because it says this scarcity is not something we have to live with. It’s something we can do something about.”

Gladwell: “Our romantic notion of the genius must be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.”

As advocates of the importance of social capital, it is obviously self-validating that Gladwell shows how social networks (beyond mere brilliance) is one of the factors Gladwell tags as a key to success. Scholars like Ronald Burt and others have clearly showed that lifetime earnings is more clearly a function of social interconnections than of levels of education.

There is interesting parallel work to Gladwell’s which shows up in work by an economist named David Galenson in an intriguing book called Old Masters and Young Geniuses.

Galenson believes that artists fall into two categories:

1) conceptual innovators who peak creatively early in life. They know what they want to accomplish and then set out with certainty to accomplish this. (Examples include Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Wells).

2) experimental innovators who peak creatively later. They dabble, try new things (some of which succeed and some fail), learn from their mistakes, and make incremental improvements to their art until they’re capable of real masterpiece. Examples include Paul Cezanne, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, and Jackson Pollock).

Galenson’s work parallels Gladwell’s in his belief that many “geniuses” are not born great but have the capacity to learn from others and learn from failures along the way.  See interesting talk by Gladwell discussing Galenson in “Age Before Beauty.”

Previewing  The Outliers in New York magazine, he talks about the case of Canadian hockey players:

Gladwell explains why the relative-age effect (a compounding of some initial advantage over time), explains why a disproportionate number of elite Canadian hockey players were born in the first half of the year (popularizing  the research of a Canadian psychologist). Because Canada’s eligibility cutoff for junior hockey is January 1, Gladwell writes, “a boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year.” Since the differences in physical maturity are so great at that age, this initial advantage in when one starts playing competitive hockey helps explain which kid will make the league all-star team. And similarly, by making the all-star team earlier, the January 2 kid gets another leg up in more practice, better coaching, tougher competition, that compound that difference. Gladwell says it explains why by age 14, the January 2 birthday kid  becomes so much better at hockey than the January 1 birthday kid. Gladwell says the solution is doubling the number of junior hockey leagues—some for kids born in the first half of the year, others for kids born in the second half. Or, as it applies to elementary schools, Gladwell believes that elementary and middle schools should put group students in three classes (January-April birthdays, May-August birthdays, and September-December birthdays) to “level the playing field.”

It’s interesting, as New York magazine points out, that at some level The Tipping Point was all about how one individual, taking advantage of connectors and influencers and the structure of social networks can move the world.  The Outliers starts at the other pole and argues that people’s opportunity to move the world and excel, while partly driven by talent, is largely structured by opportunities provided externally.  The Outliers is an invitation for governmental-policy to ensure that those who are talented can achieve, rather than be left to chance of who happens to be given the opportunities.  While Gladwell is quick to seize upon the accumulated advantages of those who succeed, he overlooks the role of persistance and motivation (which someones arises out of adversity).  Slate has a brief historical discussion of figures like Oppenheimer who overcame their disadvantages and quotes Sarkozy who said: “What made me who I am now is the sum of all the humiliations suffered during childhood.”

N.B.: Interestingly, Gladwell, who is a rare breed of journalist-celebrity, such that Fast Company once called him “a rock star, a spiritual leader, a stud”, insists that he is not an Outlier; he says “I’m just a journalist.”  He does explain that he put in his own 10,000 hours at the Washington Post from 1987-1997, and it was only because of that investment in the craft of journalism that he could succeed when he moved to the New Yorker in 1997.

Read excerpts of Outliers here.

Related article “Genius: The Modern View” by David Brooks (NYT Op-Ed, 5/1/09).

The book, BTW, is panned by Michiko Kakutani of the NYT in “It’s True: Success Succeeds and Advantages Can Help” (11/17/08).

Interesting video of Gladwell presenting at AIGA’s Gain conference here; he discusses success via detailed story of Fleetwood Mac and shorter discussion of the Beatles. (PSFK)