Malcolm Gladwell was now famously gobsmacked over Egypt. It sure seems like he lacked imagination about the potential for social media to impact social change.
No, twitter and facebook were not the cause of what happened in Egypt, they were a metalayer on top of what was happening. Still, it’s undeniable that social tools speeded things up dramatically, and that could have been the key factor. Metalayers often are the very reason that things can happen when they couldn’t have happened before. They reduce the work and the energy needed to organize systems. Maps are one example. How did we ever find our way anywhere before GPS or Google Maps? It’s a repeating pattern.
Yes, I understand and agree there were many contributing factors to the recent events in the Middle East: youth, unemployment, access to the internet, discontent with the regime, etc. We can’t rerun the experiment without social technologies or by changing any other variables, but we can observe the trend and chalk it up as another case study.
So let’s take a look at what these technologies do, and how they might have had an impact, then let’s look at how to quantify them.
It’s true, initial social media ties are weak ties. Nobody’s going to become your best friend on twitter in an hour in 140 character tweets. Yet to say, as Gladwell did, that twitter and Facebook create only weak ties misses some major points about what these platforms can do:
- The platforms provide a platform to find other people with a common purpose.
- The platforms create ties (even if initially weak) where none existed before, and these weak ties formed around a common purpose are a first step to developing stronger ties, but even weak ties with enough passion can create stunning results.
- The platforms provide a means to coordinate mobile action, by massive amounts of people, at very high speeds, on the fly.
Most imporantly, once people are found, ties created, and actions coordinated, the participants go out in the real world, do something meaningful, and then come back and share what they’ve learned and realign.
These platforms create neural networks of us. They learn, we learn, then they learn again.
What would a quantification of the social media impact look like?
We hear the word “catalyze” used, and overused, on a daily basis, but I do think it makes sense to think of impact much like the catalysis of a chemical reaction:
Figure from Wikipedia, Activation Energy.
At a given temperature, basically, a reaction will only move forward with any meaningful speed if a catalyst is present. Catalysts lower the activation energy of the reaction by placing the molecules in the right orientation to react.
By connecting, coordinating and mobilizing people, online networks do something similar.
Much like chemical catalysts working on molecules, online communities create a space for two ideas to come together and create something new. Like chemical reactions, they need a critical mass (concentration) to get things moving. Like chemical catalysts they create the ability to coordinate actions by aligning the participants. The ability to coordinate activities in real time with massive inputs and mobile access makes them a potent regime changer.
Yet networks are messy. They aren’t purified reactants mixing in the closed system of a chemist’s beaker. People are not uniform sets of molecules. We are all massively complex adaptive systems with further complex adaptive systems.
Without getting into social complexity theory and the like (we should be able to quanitfy the effect or the probabilities), I think the crux of the matter is this: social media technologies make it simpler and incredibly faster for groups of people to mobily organize, on the fly, to impact change. A group of people is just a mob, but a network of people with a common purpose is an organization. And with these technologies, they have potent abilities to act. Before, strong leaders and large organizations coordinated massive groups of people by means of hierarchical structures. Now, the network is not only the leader but also the (initial) organizing capability of the group.
No wonder they shut down the internet. It’s more powerful than guns. Smart mobs with online capabilities are defeating status quo organization ruled by hierarchy and unfamiliar with coordinating technologies. These mobile smart mobs can be built on the fly in a matter of hours or days and they will continue to get smarter. Reaction rates are getting much, much faster.
Startups can be built by remote groups of people in a few days and can release a product in a week. Businesses and governments alike are just beginning to feel the effects. We are just beginning to see the potential. Stay tuned (to your network).
I’m looking forward to exploring deeper into how the effects of these organizational abilities might be quantified in future. Special thanks to Mike Vickers for helping to catalyze this post.