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[liberationtech] Cyber-sceptics wanted!

Michael Gurstein gurstein at
Thu Mar 3 03:34:27 PST 2011

Since others are quoting from their blogs perhaps I'll quote from mine...
"There are current disputes within the blogisariat about the role and
significance of social media and other technologies in animating, enabling,
and empowering the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.  This discussion, which
moves back and forth between techno-philes and techno-skeptics,
techno-optimists and techno-pessimists is however, mainly of interest to
those who are interested, that is the blogisariat and their followers.

It may be more useful however, to look forward rather than back; to identify
what, from the experience of these revolutions and interwoven as they were
(to a greater or lesser degree) by social media and information technology,
might be of value as these countries go forward.  What have they learned
from their recent experiences that can be applied as they respond to the
very real social and economic issues-youth and adult unemployment, poor
quality and limited access to public services, rising food costs, lack of
opportunities for democratic participation-which ultimately provided the
motivation for the masses whose commitment to the movement ensured its

I go on to attempt a first order response to my rhetorical question at
<> and somewhat earlier
specifically on Tunisia and in a somewhat parallel
discussion to talk about the effects of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia
on social media . (My apologies as I know that this
will be a duplication for some of you.)



-----Original Message-----
From: liberationtech-bounces at
[mailto:liberationtech-bounces at] On Behalf Of Giuseppe A.
Sent: Thursday, March 03, 2011 7:44 AM
To: Yosem Companys   
Cc: Liberation Technologies
Subject: R e: [liberationtech] Cyber-sceptics wanted!

Very nice and informative discussion, thank you.

As an observer not directly involved this field of research, I would say
that there is some evidence to sustain that weak ties are important. In the
so in cial psychology literature, it refers to the  so-called  process of
''silent conversion'' . The paradigm of minority influence (Moscovici, 1976;
Maass and Clark, 1984; Mugny and Perez, 1991) demonstrates how established
norms change under dissent and introduces the distinction between active and
passive deviance. Consistent active minorities inform the majority and lead
them to reconsider their take on the world. Organized minorities influence
by inducing a latent conversion among the majority but miss out on the
credit for achieving this: the 'sleeper effect' ensures that we remember the
message but not its source. This all suggests two different processes of
social influence: majorities achieve conformity in public, while dissent
might continue in private; minorities make us rethink privately, while we
still conform publicly, but maybe only for a while. Minorities induce a
rethink about the world (informational processes), while majorities make us
consider others (normative processes).

Thank you



Moscovici, S. (1976) Social Influence and Social Change. London: Academic

Mugny, G. and Perez, J. A. (1991) The Social Psychology of Minority
Influence. Cambridge: CUP.

Giuseppe A. Veltri
personal email ga.veltri at
work email Giuseppe.Veltri at

On 3 March 2011 00:14, Yosem Companys <companys at> wrote:


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:  <tel:%2B91%2080%2040926283> +91 80
<tel:%2B91%2080%2040926283> 40926283

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