Last Friday, at the International Conference on Social Cohesion and Development organised at the OECD there were several papers presented on civic participation. The basic premise of our paper is that social networks are a good tool for citizens and governments alike to communicate and even develop their programs and agendas.
The session was on Friday morning at 11:00 am Tunisia time.
In this session, a very interesting comment came up while discussing hard and soft social capital was the idea of where and whether these social networks like Twitter and Facebook can actually make a difference. Where is the point where they actually matter? Well, if you are following any of this debate, you have seen that there are two very clear camps. Clay Shirkey is most prolific on in the pro-social network camp and Malcolm Gladwell in the anti-social network camp.
An article in the New Yorker by Gladwell (anti) entitled “Why The Revolution will not be Tweeted” states that Twitter will never be able create a revolution because the ties are too loose to bind people to create a movement. He also stated here that there just isn’t enough evidence to prove that in the absence of the internet these demonstrations wouldn’t have happened anyway.Clay Shirkey (pro) in the article From Innovation to Revolution in Foreign Affairs stated that “Digital networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech by citizens, and to the speed and scale of group coordination. As Gladwell has noted elsewhere, these changes do not allow otherwise uncommitted groups to take effective political action. They do, however, allow committed groups to play by new rules.
Perhaps the evidence that Gladwell is looking for to prove that these networks matter is that reportedly authorities in Tunisia had been hacking into Facebook in order to steal passwords of users. But, if Facebook hadn’t been there, there would have been nothing for them to steal and therefore the identities of activists would have been safer. New rules indeed. According to, senior editor at The Atlantic “If you need a parable for the potential and pitfalls of a social-media enabled revolution, this is it: the very tool that people are using for their activism becomes the very means by which their identities could be compromised”
Jillian York of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University, who has been tracking the Tunisian situation closely. "There are a lot more Facebook users than Twitter users. Facebook allows for strong ties in a way that Twitter doesn't. You're not just conversing." So, Mr. Gladwell seems to have some agreement on Twitter. But, what about Facebook? Suddenly, Facebook is providing virtual “stronger” ties that can make a difference.
This article in the Atlantic came out on Tuesday morning which I think is the first we have seen on how Facebook had to rapidly respond to user information being compromised in Tunisia and how “Facebook went from being a waste of time or procrastination tool, to my go-to source on up-to-date information. It was stuff the major media channels weren't reporting, such as numbers to call to reach the military and what was happening when in what specific neighborhood" according to one activist.
Here we are now at 18:00 Cairo time today and on the Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/#!/elshaheeed.co.uk entitled “We are all Khaled Said” there are up to the minute updates on where and when the next demonstration will be in Egypt, live video and photos as well as some incredibly good illustrations about this movement. The illustration on this blog is from there.
So, to answer the question as to where and whether social networks matter, the answer is (as of now) Tunisia and Egypt and yes they do. I lean on the side of Shirkey. Gladwell is not wrong though in that these events probably would have happened anyway. But, they are now happening faster and cheaper. This matters.
Illustrator's link: http://www.facebook.com/#!/elshaheeed.co.uk