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[liberationtech] Cyber-sceptics wanted!

Yosem Companys companys at
Wed Mar 2 15:14:42 PST 2011


My answers below.

Weak ties might act as fuel for movements, but they don't ignite them.  A
> core set of strong ties (whether offline or online, whether they knew each
> other from earlier or got to know each other well as part of the movement)
> is required.

In the absence of empirical evidence, we can't say this categorically.
 Where's the data?  It's a good hypothesis though, and I agree with it, as
my quotes from McAdam/Diani's work suggested.

> I agree that weak ties are important.  (And disagree to the extent that
> weak ties can get converted to strong ties: so Dean & Clark might have
> started out as weak ties, but that subsequently changed (even before meeting
> each other IRL).)

How weak ties become strong ties, and vice versa, is rarely studied
empirically in movements & revolutions because it's so difficult to collect
good data on the phenomenon.  Longitudinal net analysts such as Powell,
Strang, Tuma, Aral, Wasserman, Faust, Carley, etc. use event history
analysis & hazard models to try to get at this.

Some of the best work I've seen examines dynamic tie formation & change
qualitatively.  For example, I wrote a working paper a few years back
showing how weak ties became strong ties in 9/11.  The firm in question lost
90% of its staff, and so it called on its former employees (then weak ties,
but previously stronger ties when they worked as employees) to come back and
work for it; hence, strong -> weak -> strong again.

>  In fact, in a message on the Gladwell thread on this mailing list last
> year I'd written:
>  2. Even traditional political advocacy can actually be based on weak ties.
Most, if not all, successful political advocacy requires weak ties.  All
social network analyses I've seen support Granovetter's original contention
that information diffusion is not possible in the absence of weak ties.
 Granovetter showed this was true in the context of finding jobs.  But
scholars of movements & revolutions have found this to be the case there,
and so have organization scholars in all sorts of organizations.  It's a
pretty robust social and political finding.

This is the problem with Gladwell's argument.  He claims categorically that
offline (or as you say, IRL) movements use strong ties while online
movements use weak ties.  This is just patently false based on the
sociological and political data.

Any movement based solely on strong ties -- whether online or offline --
will not be a movement at all.  It will be a densely, interconnected, closed
group that speaks to no other networks, like a family.  As Burt suggested,
you need weak ties to serve as brokers to new knowledge.  Information
diffusion a la contagion and epidemics not possible without weak ties.

>       Thus social
>> media-based advocacy can help convert some of those with only weak ties
>> into those with stronger ties.  This is thus a case of one complementing
>> the other.  Thus, I agree with Mary that this distinction is one of
>> degree and of tendency, rather than absolute.
Without empirical evidence, I don't see how we can categorically say
anything about the relationship between social media advocacy and tie
formation & change.  We can speculate on it, but we don't have any grounded
evidence to advance an argument.  But empirical research on
movements/revolutions does show organizing requires strong ties, but
marketing/advertising/PR -- the basis of movement growth -- requires weak

>  In an offlist mail to Jillian I'd written:
> It seems to me we are both in agreement in terms of his argument and its
> weaknesses.  But while I conclude that for the most part I agree (focussing
> on its strengths), you conclude that for the most part you disagree
> (focusing on its weaknesses).

I agree with the comments on the Twitter list @Liberationtech, where I
believe Jillian also participated in a discussion about how we need more
exchange between non academic media observers and academics.  Academics have
grounded evidence to share with non academics to produce fascinating
practitioner books like Gladwell's The Tipping Point.  Non academics often
come up with new ideas, but have to be careful not to present them as
empirical evidence.  These are simply propositions or working hypotheses
that academics should explore further.

I think it's dangerous to make non grounded arguments about social media in
the context of movements/revolutions, especially since high-risk activism
employing such advice could cost lives.

Best, Yosem

> - Pranesh
> --
> Pranesh Prakash
> Programme Manager
> Centre for Internet and Society
> W: | T: <%2B91%2080%2040926283>+91 80 40926283
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