Thursday, February 17, 2011

Swarms, Redux

In the past few weeks, a number of friends and colleagues have been sending me notes on the uprisings in the Middle East, knowing that I'm writing a book called Swarms, on social media and their ability to rapidly expand the coordination and power of self-organized groups.

As new protests spread across the Middle East [ the result, in part, of coordinated action via social media], here are some quick observations:

* The Internet, mobile phones and online social networks are tools for rapid coordination that can help people to synchronize their beliefs and coordinate their actions -- faster, easier and on a much larger scale than ever before;

* Establishment institutions aren't afraid of big ideas so much as synchronized action -- and social media tools in the hands of the voiceless, disaffected or disenfranchised (those with an ax to grind or a cause to promote) can effectively re-calibrate the balance of power;

* Social media can be an accelerant, enabling social movements to crop up in weeks and days rather than taking years to mobilize, as before;

* Social media can make weak social ties stronger, making it easier for people with similar ideas and sentiments to find each other and create communities of coordinated action;

* The Internet can help to distribute leadership and decentralize it; movements no longer need a single charismatic leader calling all the shots;

* Net-coordinated dissent is going regional. Social networks are now influencing other social networks;

* There is an arms race of technology between the governed and those governing. Egyptian authorities were clueless; China's are not. NYU colleague Kristen Taylor, on a social media panel last week in New York during Social Media Week, coined the term, "The Mubarak Effect." Said Taylor: "It's this tone deaf thing that's happening that can happen, really, in any sector. You have someone in there who's not listening (via social media), who's unable to listen and it ends up really bad."]

* A nation that disconnects its Internet and mobile phones opts out of the world economy -- insuring that no nation challenged by synchronized action via social media can afford to disconnect citizens completely for very long;

* The combination of online and offline activism is powerful, as is an independent press. Al-Jazeera's balanced coverage and livestreams of the protests added to the momentum and credibility of the youth movements in Cairo and Tunisia and elsewhere, spawned via social media;

* The ability of social media to bear unfiltered witness to events -- and distribute videos of them as are happening -- makes it harder for information "to go away" but easier for people in failed uprisings to be identified by regimes later -- and "disappeared."

For more on digital swarms, see Mary Joyce's blog post on the tech that powers activists on the Meta-Activism Project blog, and Clay Shirky's piece on social media and political dissent in Foreign Policy Magazine. See also Hillary Clinton's recent speech on Internet freedom, and this NPR interview, below, with Alec Ross -- the State Department's social media advisor. The State Department, Ross says, is now monitoring the tweets of influential people around the world, and chiefly those in the Middle East. "It's fascinating...the degree to which information can be made available in real-time from sources who wouldn't have been historically elevated," he says.

Here's Ross, below:

What do you think? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Photo: Street protest in Yemen: Reuters)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your blog and would love to guest post an educational article I have written pertaining to social media and the conflict in Egypt. If you are interested please email me for more information.

Thomas Morrison

February 21, 2011 at 4:50 PM  
Blogger Zohar said...

These are great points. Together they say that a community of people, once they realize they have power, are unstoppable. (See the union song, "Step By Step".)

Rulers who thought the writing on the wall was in disappearing ink are now trembling.

February 22, 2011 at 1:46 AM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Zohar - Thanks for your comment; the test will be how successfully such "swarms" are deployed in peace to reshape the outputs of all traditional organizations -- and then to keep them accountable over time.

February 22, 2011 at 8:41 AM  

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