Why the revolution might not be tweeted; or why Gladwell was right but for different reasons

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Malcolm Gladwell obtained the ire of many social media folks when he argued Why the revolution will not be tweeted back in October 2010.
I thought he was wrong then, and I still think he’s wrong in his analysis. However, in the light of two recent events I think he might actually be right in his conclusion, but for entirely different reasons. The two events are:

  1. The editor-in-chief of The Australian accused a journalism academic of defaming him by her live tweets reporting what a third party said – this is being tracked on Twitter under the hashtag #twitdef.
  2. The release by Wikileaks of a large quantity of US diplomatic cables (their domain used to be http://wikileaks.org but this is unlikely to work any longer) – this is being tracked on Twitter under the hashtags #wikileaks and #cablegate.

Gladwell attributed the non-tweeting of the revolution to his notion that real revolutions only happen offline and that new recruits to activism are brought in solely by people they know in real life. He seems that believe that only offline interactions can build “strong tie” commitment required for “high risk activism”. Gladwell seems unaware that loose tie interactions, like those afforded by Twitter, can give rise to extremely strong ties offline. In my experience Twitter has led to the development of many “strong tie” relationships that commenced with the loose ties typical of social networks.

Why I now think he’s right in his conclusions, but for entirely different reasons, has to do with the two examples mentioned above.

For a few years now the world of web 2.0, social media and social networking have been a ferment of new ideas, new ways of connecting and new systems of almost utopian belief in a good and great future enabled by the web. But that was before the internet of web 2.0 (what I refer to as the ‘social web’) was big enough to matter. Now, with the Wikileaks cable release going global and the ongoing anti-Twitter activism of some mainstream news media organisations, we can see that the social web matters.

It matters enough now that state actors are likely behind the moves to cut Wikileaks off from web hosting, DNS, money, and thus removing from them the ability to communicate further information.

We have seen the organisations that power much of the social web (like Amazon or PayPal) suddenly reviewing their Terms of Service and deciding that Wikileaks is in breach thus requiring them to withdraw access to their services. For example:

PayPal statement regarding WikiLeaks
DECEMBER 3, 2010
PayPal has permanently restricted the account used by WikiLeaks due to a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity. We’ve notified the account holder of this action.”

The other matter that grabbed my attention recently was the defamation claims by Chris Mitchell against Julie Posetti (Crikey is curating a list of references to #twitdef).

Here we see a traditional news media organisation fighting a rearguard action against new kinds of media, like Twitter. But we see many mainstream media organisations simultaneously arguing that Twitter is not publishing, nor is reporting of news possible by means of Twitter, yet they use Twitter for that very purpose. We are still evolving our ideas as a society as to what media like Twitter are; and Stilgherrian has summarised some of the tensions nicely on Crikey.

Another salient fact in my ruminations is a discovery today that trending topics on Twitter are not a simple first past the post system. Apparently they are managed by an algorithm that rivals Google’s in complexity. According to Angus Johnston, who asked the question Why Isn’t #Wikileaks Trending on Twitter, and Should We Care?:

“It turns out it’s tougher than you’d think to put together a trending topics list that really means anything. If you just go by the raw frequency with which words appear, you’re going to wind up with stuff like “the,” “and,” and “RT” at the top of the charts forever. And even if you exclude words like those, you’re still going to wind up with “lunch” trending every lunchtime and Glee trending every Tuesday. “

It all starts to come together for me. The social web is going mainstream, that means that incumbent media players are finding that their power base is shifting (along with their revenue base); and that they’re not happy about this.

In most businesses and startups distribution is one of the key challenges to be overcome. And for the social web distribution remains the challenge. The social web is dependent upon cloud providers for hosting, DNS, payments etc. Thus producers of content do not really own the means of production AND distribution in the same way that people could in the past (e.g. where they could purchase and setup their own printing press – it’s worth noting that this model tended to have distribution constraints). Modern content producers are reliant on third-parties who, based on the Wikileaks experience, might not always be there to distribute their content.

Further, the enormous quantity of data flying around the social web means that, even with the best will in the world, we might not be able to find out about something significant. Thus the case of Twitter trending topics and #wikileaks and #cablegate it appears that, without any particular malice, the algorithm does not find these hashtags interesting enough to include as trends.

It seems to me that the convergence of these trends might mean that it is quite possible that the revolution will not be tweeted.

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3 Replies to “Why the revolution might not be tweeted; or why Gladwell was right but for different reasons”

  1. Being a solutions sort of guy I see all the power is still with the people if they exercise it. Simply ensuring a massive boycott of corporations who participate would surely suffice to discourage such behaviour. A choice at the voting booths at the next election might also have indirect effect.

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