It’s not the Public Internet, It is the Internet Public.

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Last night Gladwell published this short piece for the New Yorker. Gladwell revisits his earlier essay which argued that the ties produced by social media (weak ties) are not as important as social ties produced by face to face iteration (strong ties), and thus social media is not a particularly advantageous platform for fermenting social change. While I disagree with much of that essay, it seems worth investigating/considering, the degree to which social ties produced by social media are substantially different from those which develop from relationships not mediated thru social media. Bizarrely though, his most recent post actually suggests something quite different. Rather than argue that social media has effects on social organization (replacing strong ties with weak ones), Gladwell argues that social media is of little to no-consequence:

“But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.”

The point for Gladwell is that asking how the revolution happens is the “least interesting” question one can ask. Again bizarrely this seems to contradict his earlier piece which argued that “how” a revolution happened was of crucial importance for understanding the nature of the ties people develop. It would seem that the only consistency between these pieces is an attempt to downplay the significance social media plays in social movements, indeed arguing that it either doesn’t help, or is of no relevance. The first Gladwell is worth considering, the second less so.

But where Gladwell misses in this second article is realizing that the discourse has shifted, moved beyond does social media cause a revolution, to how does the existence of social media change the warp and the woof of a social movement. This question is far more interesting, and far more important. The “Twitter Caused the Revolution” headlines have been more or less replaced by more nuanced accounts of “what role did social media play in these protests.” Few have been willing to argue that social media is not part of the equation here, or that social media’s role is not worth investigating. This strikes me as a fairly substantial shift from the “Iran = Twitter Revolution” headlines of a year and a half ago. Indeed, I have even detected a subtle shift from the Tunisia analysis, whereby understanding of social media’s role has become more nuanced and refined. I have spent the better part of two days now reading thoughts and blog posts from various places around the web attempting to learn what others have to say about these events and I see little evidence from academics and leading thinkers in the field that Twitter = democracy arguments are still alive. (Even CNET argued that there is no such thing as a social

To be sure “cyber-utopism” as a discourse is still a dangerous and prevalent myth. Indeed all one has to to is see recent comments by Iranian activist and noble prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who said, “So, I can tell you that thanks to technology dictators can’t get a good nights sleep,” to realize that the belief that social media = social justice is alive and well. Clinton’s 21st century statecraft ideology is alive and well.

I think it is also important to distinguish here between the analysis of social media and the Egypt uprising, I and you, are likely reading, and the one that still circulates amongst people who are not particularly and specifically invested in the matter. That is I think if you asked people who do not spend hours a day on Twitter, or reading articles on the web written by experts on the subject, the impression might be distinctly different. I have had numerous conversations (four in the airport alone on Sunday) with people who all articulated the belief that social media was largely responsible for the uprising, and that do to social media we are likely to see all of Africa revolt, and demand democracy, a cascade effect produced by the internet. Which is to say, that although the debate has for the large part moved past cyber-utopism, the effects of that debate still linger. And in this respect it is not the internet that matters so much as how we talk about the internet (see Thesis One of Morozov’s book).

But that doesn’t account for the most recent article by Gladwell, indeed it makes said article even more academically irresponsible by recasting and repeating a debate that most (all) experts have moved past. Gladwell misses an opportunity to help develop questions about the role of social media in pursuit of social justice, instead choosing to play the “nothing new here, move along” card. One doesn’t correct for the cyber-utopic discourse that still exists by utterly dismissing the effects of the medium under discussion. This just creates the “yes it is,” “no it isn’t” debate which has proved not only inadequate, but at least partly responsible for the less than effective social media foreign policy. We need better.

The Medium Matters

It strikes me as ignorant to argue that social media (or any communication tool for that matter) produces a revolution, causes are multiple, no singular cause produces a revolution, the least of which being something like Twitter. But it also strikes me as arrogant to assume that the tools we use doesn’t also alter the way in which we communicate. This is a rather simple and often lost point in McLuhan’s thesis that “the medium is the message.” McLuhan wasn’t arguing that content is entirely irrelevant to a specific communication, the bastard simplified interpretation of that quote, instead his thesis is that the medium is the social message. This is crucial: The point is that the existence of a specific technology and its widespread adoption fundamentally alters the society which adopts said technology. (This is alters not determines.) Now we could argue the extent to which McLuhan was being a technological determinist (I read him as being more nuanced than other critics have), but will save that debate for later (a much longer essay). For now the important point is to understand that the medium matters. As McLuhan says you can focus on what the train is carrying, cornflakes or Cadillacs, but that doesn’t matter, what matters is that the existence of a network of rails and trains alters the social structure of a society. If you believe the medium doesn’t matter, that content is the real key, you are ignoring the degree to which a tool changes its user, you are taking “the numb stance of a technological idiot” (“Medium is the Message”).

Even the Greensboro protest, Gladwell’s example from the original article, demonstrates this point. As many have argued, and Mark Anthony Neal reminds us, that television was central to how the civil rights demonstrations played out. This is not to suggest that TV is responsible, or even that civil rights legislation wouldn’t have passed without television. Rather, what McLuhan’s analysis shows, and critics have long recognized, is that the how of something getting accomplished certainly shapes the what is accomplished, to try and separate the two is to be a “technological idiot.”

One Lesson From Egypt

I think it is pretty clear, and maybe I’ll build this case later, that what happened in Egypt and Tunisia would have looked much different, played out differently if the how of the revolution had been different, if social media had not been one of the tools used as a means of communication. And to see why this is the case one needs to look not at the particular uses of Twitter or Facebook (whether people were Tweeting or updating about cornflakes or Cadillacs) but rather at the existence of the publicly used internet.

From an internet studies standpoint (not the protest as a whole, just what I study) the most interesting moment was the Egyptian government’s decision to shut down the internet. On January 28th, amidst increased activity, the Egyptian government shut down citizen access to the internet. Only one internet service provider, the Noor Group (which is largely responsible for corporate connections, the stock market Coca-Cola, etc) remained connected. As the Noor Group only provides roughly 8% of the internet traffic in Egypt, and with the other big four service providers following government orders and cutting access, most Egyptians were mostly cut-off from the internet. (The mostly is key here, as we discovered Egyptians started to find ways around the blackout.) It is worth noting that the government also cut mobile phone service, so more than cutting off the internet, the government cut off hyperconnectivity, reducing protestors to more traditional means of communication. (Mubarak seemed to be trying to have both sides of the dictator’s dilemna, enabling economic communication while restricting all others.)

As many have observed this was an “unprecedented move” by a nation-state. While other countries have “pulled the plug” on the internet, namely Burma in 2007 and Nepal in 2005, this is the first time that a country with such a large internet penetration had entirely shut off access. While Iran heavily filtered the internet, and drastically slowed connection speeds, they stopped short of using the “kill switch.” Also important to note is that in prior cases it was the government acting to kill centralized routing, rather than intervening as Egypt here did at the level of the ISPs. Through leveraging influence on the ISPs Egypt managed to shut off the public internet.

But here is the deal, while the Egyptian government could mostly shut off access to the public internet, they couldn’t shut off the internet public.

That is, while the government could shut down the hardware of the internet, it could not shut down the social effects of the digital network. In the same way a public is fundamentally changed by the existence of print technology, a public is fundamentally altered by access to the digital network. This is what makes the Egypt case different from Burma and Nepal. In these other two cases the internet was not widely used, and certainly was not accessible by a substantial sector of the public who relied on it, and used it to maintain and foster social ties. Keep in mind that when Nepal shut down the internet in 2005 there was no Facebook or Twitter which they were shutting off, same goes for Burma (mostly). So while in other cases the government was shutting down access to information from the outside and controlling the flow of news, in this case Egypt was shutting down the way that a substantial portion of their populace was communicating.

Compare this situation to China where the government can shut off access to particular Western services (Facebook or Google even) but the general populaces would remain largely unaffected because the public uses Chinese based services and we can begin to understand how the public which was shaped by internet use in Egypt is substantially different than the ones in other cases. Tellingly the Egyptian case is far more similar to the Tunisian one.

And so, when the government in Egypt chose to shut down the internet, they could shut down the trafficking of information along those channels, but they couldn’t shut down the public that was already created by having already communicated and interacted along those channels. One of the most important things to understand about the internet, is there is no separation between online and offline. What happens when one is connected and actively using the digital network substantially effects what happens even when one is not actively connected and using said digital network. Cutting the wires cuts the hardware, it doesn’t cut the already changed public. Indeed cutting the hardware at the point the Egyptian government did might actually exacerbate the problem, depriving people of what they see to be a substantial public good (imagine who upset the average American gets when Time Warner interupts service).

Government oppression works in part through creating a lack of trust between members of the public–you never know if you can trust your neighbor. Key to the formation of a public which can resist the government is a space in which individuals can form ties with each other. In this sense it matters little whether those ties are formed during the making of LOL Cats or through posting to a political website, what matters is that it changes people’s social ties. The weak ties Gladwell mentions in the original article are indeed weak, but weak ties are the stuff on which publics begin to form. As Tufekci argues, the internet creates a latent public sphere, ready to be called into being given other contributing factors. A public built on LOL Cats is much different than a public which has never had access to digital networked media.

This means that we have a new level of complexity to add to the dictators dilemma. The issue isn’t just one of economic interest (let the internet into your country) versus information control interest (restrict the internet so as to control the flow of information) rather there is another level here, once the internet has been turned on (or at least the social internet enabled) turning it off proves to be a dicey proposition, for the same channels that people use to trade political information are the same channels they use to trade social information. It is as if rather than shutting off broadcast TV the only choice available would be to shut off the electricity. Sure you can kill all the electrical power, but that has far greater effects than merely ending broadcast communication. Throwing the kill switch even when you have one, is not necessarily the best of options.

Lest you think I am being utopic here let me be say that it is not at all clear to me that these changes are progressive or that a digitally networked public naturally yields to a democracy. As numerous examples show a digitally networked public can just as easily be used for social ill as for social justice, nothing guarantees that civic engagement yields civic progress. And once more as governments recognize that publics form online there is much they are likely to do to control these spaces (see China). What it does mean though is that a public with the internet has a substantially different relation to their government than a public without the internet.

Update: Tufekci argues something similar, while outlining some important ways that we can understand how this protest was different.