Tie Theory

Gladwell at a table, Los Angeles, January 2009

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article called Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, ostensibly about the superiority of “strong ties” versus “weak ties” in social activism. His premise is that “social media” — that is to say, Twitter and Facebook — are not able to effect real social change.

Telling us that social activism requires closely connected people, Gladwell devotes much of the article explaining how the students who began the Greensboro sit-in in 1960 were friends and roommates. They had strong ties. Then he introduces the “second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant”, a centrally controlled hierarchical organizational system.

Twitter and Facebook aren’t hierarchies but loose networks of acquaintances and strangers, which result in weak ties, according to Gladwell. He contends these networks are “effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires” which implies devaluation of this participation.

Gladwell dismisses an example of a digital “weak-tie” campaign that got people to sign up for a bone marrow registry.   Not because it wasn’t successful.   It was.   But because it somehow doesn’t meet with Gladwell’s criteria for social activism.   It lowered the barrier and made it too easy for people to participate.   I’m not quite sure what is wrong with lowering the barriers to participation.   Isn’t citizen engagement is a good thing?

Gladwell maintains that networks are not as effective or efficient as hierarchies because,

“How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”

Centralization can be more efficient because there is single decision maker.   It works the same in government, with an omnipotent ruler as the head of state decisions are easy.   It’s always easier to forcibly impose “discipline” than it is to build consensus.

friendship = “strong ties”

As Gladwell points out, real world friendship can make for some very strong ties.   The two examples cited show clearly what can result from the strong ties of friendship.   On one hand, you can have something as important as the Civil Rights Movement; on the other, strong ties of friendship can result in a frivolous campaign to punish the person who stole your friend’s cell phone and wouldn’t give it back.

Both examples demonstrate successful campaigns.   One used the strong tie hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement, the other the weak tie network of social media.

So, what has been proven, exactly?

Probably the low point of the article was Gladwell’s repetition of the oft used Facebook meme:

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend…”

Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker: Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted

Clearly, Gladwell doesn’t use Facebook.   Yesterday on the New Yorker live chat he admitted he’s not a Twitter user either, but that “I think someone created a twitter account in my name, and tweeted things a while back.”

Urban legends aside, the real point seems to be that Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t like Facebook or Twitter.   He doesn’t see the point.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I have nothing against Twitter. And I’d use it if I had more time. . . Here’s the deeper issue for someone like me or, for that matter, anyone contemplating using tools like Twitter. What is it you want to accomplish? Do you want a broad audience? Or a deep audience? In other words, would you rather do the best possible job engaging with a small but focused audience. Or would you rather spend your marginal hour reaching a large audience on a superficial level? There are lot of situations where the latter is a reasonable choice–like if I’m selling something, or announcing an event, or sharing a small but crucial bit of information. But I’m interested in exploring ideas in depth with the (small) group of people willing to geek-out with me. That makes strategy A a better choice.

—Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker Ask the Author Live: Malcolm Gladwell on Twitter

What caused the escalation from not wanting or needing a set of tools to attacking the validity of the tools?

Malcolm Gladwell makes it clear he is opposed to Facebook and Twitter.   There are all kinds of things wrong with these two “social media” platforms.

Yet to my great disappointment, Gladwell doesn’t seem to know what they are.

apples and oranges

For the argument to have had legitimacy, it should have compared tools with tools, or systems with systems. It would have been reasonable to compare social media with mass media, say.   Instead, Civil Rights Movement Activists are compared with Twitter and Facebook.   Gladwell isn’t proving a theory, he’s telling us what he believes an activist should be and we’re supposed to take it on faith.

All it takes to counter “tie theory” is a different incident from the Civil Rights Movement.

No central hiearchy told Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat on the bus.   Even though there were others on the bus who shared her plight, lived in the same geographic location, rode the same bus, suffered the same oppression— all presumably the stuff of “strong ties”— those people chose not to stand with her that day.   She made her decision to resist as an individual.   Strong ties or not, the others moved to the back of the bus.

Activism doesn’t have to the result of some grand design strategized by a central committee.   Quite often it just happens when people have reached their tipping point.

From the Live Chat:

[Comment From William Carleton: ]
Mr. Gladwell, the COO of Facebook and a Twitter exec both spoke at a marketing conference this week. In a way, they seem to be making your case for you, without much sense of irony. The description of the session led by the FB exec talks of “activisim” as a brand promotion tool. Do you think part of why social media reinforces the status quo may be because the stewards of the most succesful platforms seem to be selling them short?

Malcolm Gladwell:
That’s hilarious. If the civil rights movment were taking place today, do you think that some corporate entity would see it as a brand opportunity as well? Would Dr. King have done Nike ads? But yes, I’m not sure Facebook does much for real activism when they treat it as just another app.”

graphic reproduction of page one of Freedom's Journal
The printing press was a tool for social activism

activism IS just another app to a corporation

Neither Facebook or Twitter are activists; they are corporations. They are not forces for good or evil.
They exist to make a profit.   These are businesses that provide a platform and offer apps.   Corporations
don’t care about the environment, but they will
go “green” if it means an increase in profitability.

A long time ago, a man named Gutenberg invented a tool called a printing press.   Over the years, this invention has been used to print bibles, history books, political manifestos, novels, newspapers, wedding invitations and even magazines like the New Yorker.   A tool is only as good as the use to which it’s put.

So why is Malcolm Gladwell attacking “social media”?   Although asked to define “social media” it in yesterday’s chat, he declined.   In the article he says,

It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.

Malcolm Gladwell, Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted

According to Gladwell, social media tools are not only a waste of time which could be better spent making a real difference, but they bolster the status quo.   He doesn’t offer any support for this premise either, though.

During the article he raises the stakes so that we aren’t just talking about ‘activism, we’re talking about ‘high-risk activism.’   The implication being that social activism without a component of personal jeopardy is not important.   Which is kind of like saying journalism without jeopardy is valueless.

Like Gladwell, I too grew up with stories of the civil rights movement.   A lot was accomplished.   Great odds were overcome.   And of course it makes for high drama.   Which is great on a movie screen but for the people living it, not so much.   In fact, I’m guessing that most activists would prefer not to give up their lives or their freedom or their livelihoods to meet their goals.   Think how much more Mr. King might have accomplished had he lived.

White lowercase letter F on a blue field is the FaceBook logo

Many of the more than 200,000 Canadians who had felt increasingly disenfranchised by unresponsive government have been organizing under the Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament group on Facebook.

Because it IS “easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns.”   And that’s a good thing.

Ironically a high school student created a Facebook activist group that helped save a forest in Gladwell’s home town.

Without actually using digital media, it is easy to be ignorant of the fact that conversations are possible in 140 character bursts. Links to longer works or reference material can be transmitted if more depth is required.

Malcolm Gladwell should understand the importance of these communication media, as he says himself,

“Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency.

Malcolm Gladwell Small Change

Yet he brushes it off as being important to business, not activism.   It seems that Malcolm Gladwell thinks we have all the information we need.   I think he’s wrong.   The older I get, the more there is to learn.

Particularly as we are smack dab in the midst of a digital revolution. It was fascinating to watch history being made as the UK’s Digital Economy Bill was debated in the House of Lords while being filled in on the background by UK citizens on an IRC channel.   Twitter and Facebook aren’t the whole story, there are blogs, and podcasts, and even other microblogging services like the non-proprietary Identi.ca.   There are a great many activists to be found on Twitter, and some of the ones I know are:

The blue Twitter bird mascot

@doctorow     @ninapaley     @JesseBrown     @Openattitude     @schestowitz     @PaoloBrini     @p2pnet     @jkoblovsky     @techdirt     @ZeroPaid     @Org9     @zotzbro     @mgeist     @GloriousAndFree     @zittrain     @Crosbie     @lessig     @jerezim     @_the_mad_hatter     @russellmcormond     @copyrightgirl     @crime_minister     @s_nunn     @mgifford     @EFF     @publicknowledge     @creativecommons     @juditrius     @StopActaNow     @OpenRightsGroup     @CETAWatch

Canada is very fortunate to have online activists.   This is especially important at a time when the main stream news media has failed to adequately inform citizens on a number of important topics.   Bloggers and online activists who broadcast and share information online have been picking up the slack.   We are also fortunate to live at a time when the barriers to assembly and partipation have been lowered by advances in digital technology.

In the absence of digital advocacy, Canadians could have been suffering under a Canadian DMCA as far back as 2005.   Bill C-32, the current incarnation of harmful copyright law we are facing, carries serious ramifications for Canada’s digital economy, as well as issues of cultural freedom, responsive government and even sovereignty.

Malcolm Gladwell may not find these issues as important as the Civil Rights Movement was, but they are of vital importance to Canada in the here and now.
a horizontal border of red graphic maple leaves



Image Credit: Malcolm Gladwell photo by bunnicula (cc by-nd)

Also: special thanks to John S, for his blog post Whose Ties Are You Calling Weak” for focusing my attention on the issue.

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Democracy #fail

In my experience, every time anyone suggests “Strategic Voting” a closer look shows that the real reason someone is telling me to vote strategically is because I will be voting in their candidate, not mine.

graphic logo depicting parliament suspended by a noose from a gibbet

I haven’t had time to look into this exhaustively   (after all I’m supposed to be revising my first draft not blogging)   but this morning I just heard about something that sounded like strategic voting being suggested in the UK — where the ill advised Digital Economy bill was rushed through the legislative procedure without anything resembling proper scrutiny — on the eve of an election.   Since there’s a Fair Vote Canada debate on the topic of Strategic Voting scheduled this month I thought I’d take a quick peek at Hang ’em

It looks like the UK’s “Hung Parliament” idea is a bit different than Canadian strategic voting.   The idea of this seems to be prevention a majority government.

Once installed, majority governments have a nasty tendency to rule dictatorially.

Because they can.

The reasons for promoting a “Hung Parliament” seem much the same as mine for opposing majority government here in Canada.   We need to achieve something a lot closer to democracy, and so long as Canada has alternating ruling parties we are unlikely to get the electoral reform we so desperately need.

This is definitely something to look into further, and watch very carefully, since all the pundits seem to be fortelling a 2010 Canadian Federal Election.   This is a crucial issue, particularly at a time when the entire world is undergoing such revolutionary changes courtesy of the Internet.   Clearly a great majority of the UK Members of Parliament who rushed to implement their Digital Economy Bill did not understand it.

Minority governments, elections and prorogations have thus far saved Canada from being been victimized by bad copyright reforms.   Last year’s Canada wide copyright consultation process seemed very positive.   Yet there have been indications that the magnificent outpouring that the copycon prompted from informed citizens may well have been a sham, and there are very real fears that this government intends to ignore this democratic input.   The fact that Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore’s recent behaviour has prompted Michael Geist to dub him the iPadlock minister seems to indicate that bad laws similar to the DEBill may well be coming down on Canada.

Canadian politicians, like politicians the world over, are being mercilessly pressured by foreign interests.   American tools like the USTR Watch List exist simply to try to intimidate other countries into legislating against their own sovereign interest and in favor of American corporate interests.   Adding secret copyright treaties like Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (A.C.T.A.) to the mix only makes it worse.

Not so Secret A.C.T.A. Treaty negotiations

Oh, yes, they did make one draft public, but only because of continuous advocacy by concerned people like:

along with organizations like

These three organizations are all American based, which seems a clear indication that one of the worst things about this American driven Intellectual Property or Copyright Reform is that it’s a case of the American government effectively working against American citizens in favor of American corporate interests.

The point is, that most of the people promoting and passing the legislation don’t understand the issues.   It is bad enough to be saddled with bad laws because the government thinks they are good. It is inexcusable to be saddled with bad laws because of government ignorance.   If it’s worth making the laws, its worth understanding them. But the bottom line is that all of this concern for IP is an excuse to attempt to impose government control over the Internet.   Rushing to push through laws to control the internet — without understanding the Internet– is simply madness.

This type of lawmaking is clearly a failure of democracy. Many citizens are unhappy with the democratic erosion that seems to be increasing exponentially. Democracy is important to us.

I think this “Hang ‘Em” idea may have potential.

DEBill… bad4democracy

As a Canadian concerned with corporate subversion of democracy, I watched a good bit of the BBC democracy live coverage of the United Kingdom’s ill conceived Digital Economy Bill, known around the world by the acronym #DEBill, being made hastily into law.

Earlier in the year there were great howls of protest from Canadians as Prime Minister Stephen Harper prematurely prorogued parliament as a means of deflecting hard questions about Canadian involvement in torture overseas. Prorogation in Canada means that all the unfinished legislation is tossed out, and is usually done just before an election. Canadians were quite upset about this abuse of democracy, and a result has been the politicizing of a good number of previously apolitical citizens which in retrospect may well be regretted by those in power.

The UK also has prorogation, but before applying it their government can fast track laws in progress during a process called “wash-up” Traditionally in the past, only uncontroversial laws have been rushed through during wash-up, as the alternative is to have to start over from the very beginning at the next session of parliament. But this time, the Digital Economy Bill has been rushed through even through it is not only controversial but riddled with serious deficiencies which will result in sweeping changes to UK democracy.

twitter logo
I also spent a bit of time trying to follow #DEBill on twitter yesterday but there were so many people doing the same it was going so fast and freezing up, it seemed that #DEBill nearly killed twitter. Looking at it today there is still a great deal of activity there.

I think it is sickening that the UK MPs dismissed thousands of protests from constituents. There were thousands of signatories to the talktalk petition as well as some 20,000 individual letters of protest received by the government. According to MP Bradshaw, these communications were trumped by paid advertising (I believe by trade unions) which supposedly represented other constituents.

Only twenty thousand emails from the actual members of the trade unions supporting the DEBill should be able to counter balance twenty thousand constituent protests.

But I doubt that they could marshal that much support from the rank and file of the unions, particularly as many would understand the issues. The corporate media interests behind DEBill are in fact in a position to apply economic blackmail to many of these people as well. You know the kind of thing… support our business model, or don’t bother coming to work in the morning. This is why a great many of those opposed to this law daren’t say anything publicly against it. It is also why a key tool of democracy is a secret ballot.

Supposedly democratic representatives seem to do the same thing the world over. Our representatives seem to consider citizens less important than corporate special interests. Has democracy gone full circle? Are citizens are back to being voiceless serfs while corporations are the new nobility allowed by the government to rape and pillage at will? All because corporations give vast sums to political parties so they can advertise themselves into office? Are funds more valuable than votes?

It was glaringly obvious that the people pushing the Digital Economy Bill through do not actually understand what it is that they are legislating. This is clearly apparent in this letter from the Right Honorable Stephen Timms MP of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. The Digital Economy Bill was pushed through by MPs like Timms who think that the “IP” in “IP Addess” means “Intellectual Property” when in fact it means “Internet Protocol”. I would have expected the UK government would have made an effort to understand the issues before pushing it through to appease corporate pressure.

Watson fights Digital Economy Bill 3rd reading

Worse is that they are taking the allegations made by corporate special interest groups on faith while completely ignoring the opinions of informed constituents.

There were a small minority of MPs who clearly understood what is happening, particularly Tom Watson, who not only worked hard to fight against the Digital Economy Bill, but amazingly conversed live with constituents via twitter during the course of the 3rd reading.

There was this lovely little Twitter initiative called What Digital Economy Bill? #debill When I first saw it yesterday it had less than 100 signatures.

The idea is to tweet:
“I choose not to recognise the UK’s Digital Economy Bill #whatdebill #debill http://whatdebill.org”

Or you can just use the #whatdebill hashtag, and you will be added to the list. Today when I looked just now it was up to:

5,392 Twitter users have declared that
they do not recognise the Digital Economy Bill (#debill)

All the UK political parties seem to have participated in allowing this travesty to become law.

Whether it is because there are computer illiterates in every party or the pressure from the corporate interests was so strong it is hard to say. The point is that computer use and internet access has long since ceased being a luxury; how governments treat the internet will have a huge impact on the country’s economic future.

A huge irony here is that within the confines of this same Digital Economy Bill the UK government is both endeavoring to put more and more government services online as a cost saving measure, while making it possible to summarily cut off citizens by the houseful (or university full) from the internet on the basis of unproven allegations.

Legalise Happy Birthday

I myself do not belong to a political party. I have on occasionally said nice things about political parties when they do good things (and not nice things when they don’t).  In general, I dislike the idea of political parties. I have this idea that the people I elect should act in my best interests, but when there is a political party they are often made to act in the party’s best interests ahead of those of their constituents. As a citizen in a supposed democracy I reserve the right to vote for the candidate I believe will do the most good.

That said, in light of the Digital Economy Bill travesty, were I a UK citizen I would be seriously considering joining the UK Pirate Party right about now. Contrary to what the Media companies and political parties in power want you to believe, the Pirate Parties that have been springing up in just about every country in the world do not advocate lawlessness, but rather thoughtful participatory copyright law reform. The PPUK had some excellent articles about DEBill deficiencies. Like the Canadian Pirate party, they seem to be shy about trying to raise donations, I expect largely for the same reason; they are mostly young enough to believe that being right should be enough. Unfortunately it costs money just to sign up a candidate to run for office, and according to their website’s front page they are short a whopping £4,500 to go into the General Election that has forced the DEBill’s high speed scrutiny-free passage.

Check them out. They’ve got some very good ideas. In a world dominated by the internet, wouldn’t it be terribly brilliant to actually have an MP or two who actually understand the technology.

Many UK citizens are clearly incensed, and, being computer literate internet aware citizens, they are using tools.

Tools like online articles:

The Pirate Party UK:
Pirate Party Slams Lack of Democracy in Digital Economy Bill

The Daily Record: Controversial new Digital Economy Bill could breach of human rights, warn law chiefs


Charles Arthur’s Guardian article:
Internet provider defies digital bill, about UK ISP Talk Talk who have been fighting hard against DEBill from the beginning.

Tools like blogs:

Who voted NO?, which is the one that started me writing a comment that mushroomed into this blog post

An Open Letter to Siôn Simon, Pete Wishart, David Lammy, Peter Luff, John Robertson, Stephen Timms

boingboing: Correcting the ignorant UK Members of Parliament who “debated” the Digital Economy Bill

Tools to show you who bothered to show up, how they voted:

Did My MP Show Up or Not?

The Public Whip

Debillitated

And even tools to allow you to watch the video of the DEBill proceeding and comment on it:

They Work For You.com

And of course all of these tools help expatriots and foreigners like myself by identifying the participants. It helps us understand as we follow along and watch the UK government undo centuries of British Jurisprudence.

The Register: Mandybill: It ain’t over yet says that it does in fact go back to the House of Lords for a final vote tonight so it is not actually law just yet. Maybe the UK won’t end up saddled with a next generation DMCA. Maybe the UK won’t be the opening act for ACTA after all. And even if the Lords “nod it through” as everyone seems to expect, Maybe DEBill can be an election issue, perhaps even revisited right after before too much damage is done.

The government seems to have been persuaded that these laws are necessary for economic necessity. In fact, by pushing the DEBill through in the face of so much opposition, it is entirely possible that the citizen backlash will be extraordinary, and in fact may well reroute the stream of UK entertainment income largely into the black market. Just from glancing at the twitter feed thousands of citizens who would not have dreamt of breaking the law yesterday are looking at doing so seriously today as a political protest.

It would not at all surprise me if people who have never so much as jaywalked start buying bootleg disks exclusively. And every time the law clamps down on kids who were not legally criminals yesterday, families who might have agreed in principal with the DEBill yesterday will certainly oppose it tomorrow.

UK Flag with superimposed words DIGITAL ECONOMY BILL

[p.s. A great many people are upset and looking for ways to fight against this bad law that has been so undemocratically foisted on them.
Read the comments anywhere. Torrent Freak for instance: Digital Economy Bill Passes, File-Sharing Ends Soon

The problem of course is that encryption will not not stop government intervention. In Canada the backbone Bell Canada ISP has been “throttling” (actually impeding via forged reset packets) specifically the internet traffic it believes to be p2p on the erroneous assumption that all p2p traffic is copyright infringement, which just is not so. They are also impeding any encrypted traffic on the assumption that it too is p2p. You are assumed guilty and you have to prive to them you are not engaging in p2p traffic. Another example of guilty until you prove yourself innocent.

I would really like this site:
What should we do in response to the Digital Economy Bill?,
BUT one can only vote, comment and possibly add their own ideas after providing identifiable information in order to sign up. Kind of defeats the purpose when you’re advising people to:

“Encrypt and obfuscate all data.”]

The House of Lords passed the Digital Economy Bill.