Tuesday, 1 March 2011

From Innovation to Revolution | Foreign Affairs

In recent Foreign Affairs Malcolm Gladwell disputes Clay Shirky's believe that Social Networks are the Internet are impacting current revolutions. He asks Clay to produce the evidence of a existing problem solved by new technology, to which Clay make a response including this text:

"The competitive landscape gets altered because the Internet allows insurgents to play by different rules than incumbents. (Curiously, the importance of this difference is best explained by Gladwell himself, in his 2009 New Yorker essay "How David Beats Goliath.") So I would break Gladwell's question of whether social media solved a problem that actually needed solving into two parts: Do social media allow insurgents to adopt new strategies? And have those strategies ever been crucial? Here, the historical record of the last decade is unambiguous: yes, and yes.

"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."

Mr Shirky goes on to end his response

"As I noted in my original essay, this does not mean insurgents always prevail. Both the Green Movement and the Red Shirt protesters used novel strategies to organize, but the willingness of the Iranian and Thai governments to kill their own citizens proved an adequate defense of the status quo. Given the increased vigor of state reaction in the world today, it is not clear what new equilibriums between states and their citizens will look like. ...

"Even the increased sophistication and force of state reaction, however, underline the basic point: these tools alter the dynamics of the public sphere. Where the state prevails, it is only by reacting to citizens' ability to be more publicly vocal and to coordinate more rapidly and on a larger scale than before these tools existed."

From Innovation to Revolution | Foreign Affairs

Clay Shirky's points are all spot on. It is not just that social media has made existing means of communication faster, or solved some problem that earlier revolutions could not overcome and therefore could not win. Rather social network technology has given insurgent groups the ability to change the competitive landscape in any area more rapidly that previous forms of control and communication.

What we see in Egypt is not entirely a classic revolution. Lenin would not have recognized. Lenin believe strongly that a revolution needed a vanguard party, as did Mao. From the US to Cuban revolution a small firm group of leaders has had to work to bring the masses along. Digital technology allows much more spontaneous formation of social activity. Clusters of protesters can agree on ends and coordinate without leadership now.


  1. If anything it more closely resembles anarchism in the classic sense: decentralized networks within which power is shared, characterized by dynamic flows of information rather than a vanguard.

  2. Yes the anarchist perspective has come up a great deal as well. I recall dong a study on Second Life and noticing how people seem to self organize in the absence of any clear authority or even rational need to organize. In Second Life there are really no bad results from bad behavior, nothing is real. And yet people followed clear patterns of group organization without law or mandate.