Wouldn’t it be great to re-tweet Martin Luther King?

Amanda made a great point in Kate Milberry’s Comm506 class today that social change isn’t caused by our social tools – it’s caused by our social movement. 

We were discussing Malcolm Gladwell’s controversial 2010 piece in the The New YorkerSmall Change Why the revolution will not be tweeted, and the resulting public discussion and backlash to it. Though pointing out the benefits of social media, Gladwell stated that social media doesn’t cause revolution, and that “social media can’t provide what social change has always required” – organized, strategic planning and cohesive action among strong-tie networks.

There was great discussion in class about activism on a number of levels suported by social media, especially the level of diffusing information and ideas that engage people not only in understanding but action as well. In this interview, Malcolm Gladwell On Social Media and Over Confidence TheArtofcom [2:37-7:50], Gladwell gives more meaning to his article, with no apologies. 

He makes the (obvious) point that Twitter is not flawless; that it’s a powerful tool that doesn’t solve all our problems. He says he is not disparaging its importance – that it will become important in the movement – just not in the first round of organization. He says, “We belittle the organizational talents of true activism when we say they can be replaced by an electronic app. If Martin Luther King were around today, he’d slap you in the face if you tried to suggest that something on your iPhone can replace all the years of planning and patient disciplined sophisticated movement building that made civil rights possible.”

Today Mr King wouldn’t need to slap anybody. He could just Tweet, blog and share his rant on Facebook.


They don’t make a chair for high-risk activists

Malcolm Gladwell says, “Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.” Serious activism requires an authority figure, and a task-oriented, centralized organization of strategy, discipline, and coordination. Going up against powerful and organized hierarchies takes lots of planning – and support from your network of strongest ties.

Your strongest ties are the ones to call on when you decide to take down a government. They’re the ones that will stick with you ‘til the end, and not turn you in. Supported and organized, they persevere with you in the face of danger, as a cohesive unit.

Your weak ties? Well, call on your weak ties when you need a kidney, or $.25 towards a kidney. From their favourite chair, they’ll tweet out the word, post on every friend’s wall, and actively support you as you persevere in the face of your personal danger.

Is Democracy Slipping Through the Net?

Evgeny Morozov is 28 years old. And he’s a cyber-sceptic.

Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, grew up in Belarus. He has written a book, The Net Delusion  to show us “that by falling for the supposedly democratizing nature of the Internet, Western do-gooders may have missed how it also entrenches dictators, threatens dissidents, and makes it harder—not easier—to promote democracy.”  Two chapters are available on the site .

I had no idea, until reading Ed Pilkington’s piece on The Guardian, Evgeny Morozov: How democracy slipped through the net, that the US state department, in 2009, emailed Twitter to delay routine maintenance to allow protester tweets to continue uninterrupted. Morozov sees this action as setting a “dangerous precedent, convincing the Iranian leadership, and many other authoritarian regimes around the world, that the US government was in cahoots with Silicon Valley and that the internet was being turned into an extension of politics by other means.”

Morozov was on the Twitter-revolution-bandwagon until the pro-democracy claims about the internet began appearing as “wildly exaggerated.” Trying to understand how the internet can be used to promote democracy, he says he hasn’t given up on the technology, but believes it needs to be “done differently.”

The Source of Truth has Many Faces

Until I read Dorothy Kidd’s 2003 article, The IMC: A new model, I didn’t know anything about the Independent Media Center.  “Indymedia is a collective of independent media organizations and hundreds of journalists offering grassroots, non-corporate coverage. Indymedia is a democratic media outlet for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of truth.”

Despite hacking and abuse, they forge on, working “out of a love and inspiration for people who continue to work for a better world, despite corporate media’s distortions and unwillingness to cover the efforts to free humanity.”  The site isn’t slick or all that easy to read, but from what I have learned in a quick review, I will now follow it, and start sharing through my social networks. Through a network of committed volunteers with like values and attributes, they continue and evolve.

The IMC is a different activism than that of Julian Assange and the Anonymous group. Assange claims to have enlightened Anonymous about the world and gained them in his ‘battle.”  I find these groups, by using threats, shock and fear in their efforts to educate the public and bring governments, military, banking and media powers into line, to be demonstrating and exemplifying the very behaviour on which they shine a light.

To some, as founder of WikiLeaks and a “stateless news organization,” Assange is a hero. To others, particularly those with the most power, Assange is a rogue, a “high-tech terrorist.” Assange is a marked man. If Assange is silenced, will others carry the WikiLeaks torch?

Who deserves the Superman cape – Opinion Leaders or Early Adopters?

I found Kadushin’s explanation of how opinion leaders tend not to be the early adopters quite interesting. Opinion leaders “tend to exemplify the norms of the groups to which they belong” and are the brokers and bridgers of new ideas and practices. Early adopters, on the other hand, are the “mavericks” who tend to run with an idea and prepare it for diffusion (p. 145).

I understand this better by looking back on a groupware software pilot I was a part of back in 2009. Originally piloted to about 30 users, word about its capabilities for connection and collaboration spread quickly, mostly through word of mouth through overlapping internal networks;  now over 8,000 users have been enabled. The early adopters seemed to have all the knowledge and information about the software and what it could do, and their enthusiasm for it was obvious. Adopters like project managers were visible proof of its effectiveness.

The groupware diffused quickly, and I believe the tipping point occurred when the opinion leaders transmitted the idea up the chain through formal executive meetings, and also through messages to others like themselves, e.g. colleagues over coffee, about how it would benefit the organization in productivity and cost (common sense and technical network terms).  It’s easier to spread from this vantage point of overlapping networks than from the techie’s smaller network in the basement.  This initiative is now an organization-wide project to put the infrastructure and implementation plan in place to support 60,000 users over the next 5 years.

So, though I would like to give the cape  to the early adopters for their antennae and ideas; in this case, the initiative may have been difficult to spread without the transmission efforts of opinion leaders.

MACT Spring Institute – our Rubicon

In Kate’s Comm506 class this afternoon, she mentioned that today was our half-way completion point of spring institute – yay!

I thought it was fitting, then, that the Oxford English Dictionary’s Online Word of the Day today is Rubicon, which is defined as “a boundary, a limit; esp. one which once crossed entails irrevocable commitment; a point of no return,” and, “ a course of events to which one is irrevocably committed after passing a point of no return.”

So, congratulations fellow networkers, for crossing our Rubicon and moving forward into the web of posters, papers and a MACT!

The Road to MACT

Networking together

Yochi Benkler, in  Social Ties: Networking Together  refers to social software as tools for enabling new ways to communicate, collaborate and develop relationships that are different from traditional offline connections.

He reminds us, however, that “the Internet does not make us more social beings. It simply offers more degrees of freedom for each of us to design our own communications space than were available in the past.”  I think it is common to believe, when shown proof of what groups of unrelated or geographically dispersed people can do with online social software, that just by purchasing a licence and installing it on computers, that the same results can be expected. An example is provided with wikis; in certain predetermined communities or environments, like universities, they are effective for peer-based production.  However, they require administration and participant etiquette. If your community is using the wiki to collaborate or discuss different points of view, there is a potential for failure if the needs of the group are not considered.

Psychological foundations of social networking

Kadushin, in Chapter 5: Psychological foundations of social networking, shows three motivations that are always present in social networking: safety, effectance and status.

Dense, cohesive networks can provide the support that is the motivation for safety. I would consider an online support group providing safety to its community. Trust is placed in the community or site as a whole, and participants or members may receive what they need not just from the group leader, but from other members or nodes (p.61).

Effectance is about being motivated to reach out and connect outside one’s comfort zone.  Raul Pacheco-Vega could be considered what Kadushin refers to as a “highly expert network specialist” or broker – “…a professional manipulator of people and information who brings about communication for profit” (p.57).  By helping his online social networking friends, and friends of friends, he builds trust and stability of his online reputation within his community. The benefits include collecting a variety of ‘credits’ for brokering, and new ideas that are available to the group, but it comes at a cost. This effort of brokering requires personality attributes that are entrepreneurial, not always “nice,” and comfortable with aggressively reaching out (pp.63-63). Pacheco-Vega wisely responds to everyone who tweets him first, before generally tweeting to everyone else, while being generous with his support.

Status or rank refer to using the social network or reaching out to “keep up with the Joneses” or for social climbing.  Sharing and creating content, increasing online followers, tweets, and retweets are ways to improve one’s status within an online network.

Kadushin sums up that these motivations “seem affected by cultural and social context” (p. 73).

Social construction of the internet and web

The internet, as the platform or backbone of the web, uses packet switching to share data more efficiently, reliably and quickly.  Janet Abbate* explains how researchers in the US and Britain  were discovering the abilities of packet switching about the same time, but for different local social concerns. The US (Baran) was looking for a command and control communications system that could survive attack during the cold war, while Britain (Davies) was looking for a cheaper means for interactive computing, specifically ways for multiple users to share one computer. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) built the first large-scale packet switching network, based on the work of Baran and Davies as well as the US Department of Defence’s university-based ‘centers of excellence’ who were all connected via time-sharing computers, led by Lawrence Roberts. The outcome was affected by levels of government funding and interpretations of the technology as military or civilian. Roberts had access to money and computer experts that led ARPA to a superior system. Abbate concludes that packet switching required more than the “right technical idea:  it also required the right environment” (p.368).

In World Wide Web (WWW) creator Tim Berners-Lee’s 1999 Wired interview with Chris Oakes’, Berners-Lee’s vision was of an electronic democracy that brought society together and enabled ordinary people to collaborate on new ideas. It was supposed to be fun, encourage creativity and solve problems. His “right technical idea,” through the test of super-sonic web time, and his consortium, which could be considered “the right environment,” Berners-Lee still holds true to that vision.

*Abbate, Janet. (1999). Cold war and white heat: The origins and meanings of packet switching. In D. MackKenzie and J.Wajcman (Eds.) Social Shaping of Technology. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Casting my comms bread upon the waters

Thank you for checking in on my grad studies journey in communications and technology.