08 November 2010

Social media and political upheaval

I was prompted by this comment from political scientist, Henry Farrell ...

"I’ll confess to being particularly annoyed by the Gladwell piece because it seems like the purest possible distillation of the intellectual-debate-through-duelling-anecdotes that has plagued discussion over the Internet and authoritarian regimes over the last few years."

...to read the New Yorker article by that sparked it.  And I don't find it so contentious. Indeed Farrell concedes that the thrust of Gladwell's argument is not necessarily wrong: that the weakly-linked, politically-motivated internet networks that are so easy to join are unlikely to be a force for change compared to the strongly-linked, disciplined, structured (and hierarchical) political movements that have provoked change in the past (in civil rights, resisting authoritarian regimes and so on). What is contentious, though, is that the article stops short of considering whether or how joining a network and becoming informed about issues leads into commitment to more organised political movements and action (or, indeed, commitment to any other sort of behaviour change, not necessarily political). Farrell points out that we simply don't have the research to know whether the network has any impact here. Gladwell makes, for me, the somewhat unrelated comparison between weakly-linked and strongly-linked political movements and the discrete structures used for different purposes by car manufacturers: networks to sell; hierarchies to design, suggesting there can be no transition between the two. So I see Farrell's frustration.

[Farrell comment via Ethan Zuckerman]

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