Recently the Egyptian revolutions have caused a lot of people to question what impact social media has in modern uprisings. Does it have the power to pull together and motivate like-minded people or are we reading too much into the influence it has?
In October of last year, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a column in the New Yorker magazine stating that social media does not have the power to create social change. Gladwell was immediately criticized by the social media community about his statements. After the Egyptian revolution he has received another round of criticism, and rightfully so. I for one think Gladwell had it right, but not in his social media post, in his book The Tipping Point.
In the Tipping Point Gladwell discusses the American Revolution. Specifically he talks about Paul Revere and how his ride, unlike a similar ride by William Dawes, ignited the fire in the colonies to have them rise up against the British. It was Revere’s ability as a connector and an influencer that allowed the message to spread and motivate people for change. Tuck that little gem away for a few minutes.
The American Revolution, like every revolution pre-2011 was a revolution of vocal minority. Simply put a small group of unhappy people quickly and unexpected by the controlling power rose up to overthrow those in power. Almost 100% of the time these revolutions were militia based, there were very few ways to drive out a ruling power without force. These militias were usually under-manned, under-equipped, but very energetic. The element of surprise was always critical to their success.
Because of this revolutions had to stay small. Ruling authorities start to notice when 100,000 people start stock piling guns. When potential revolutions are noticed early they are quickly diffused. Messages took a while to travel through the masses and were bound to be intercepted before full diffusion. Keeping things small and secret is the only way to go. Historically anyway.
Karl Marx in one of his many social political theories discussed this very issue. He talked about how revolutions were never for the benefit of the masses, simply for the benefit of the minority that is able to pull it off without getting killed in the process. Marx theorized that we will reach a point where the masses will organize revolutions, and when that happens we will see a time period of rapid social change. Of course he later went on to wrap this into his Communist theory and say that this was one of the steps to a communistic society. I am certainly not a Marxist or Communist (I think the idea of a Utopian world is very skewed), but I think he was onto something with the original theory on the revolution of the masses.
So where does social media play into all of this? There is a theory known as Dunbar’s number which states that the maximum number of personal connections that any one person can hold at any given time is 150, for non-personal connections it stretches to about 300. Gladwell even loves this number and discusses it in the Tipping Point at great length. This number limits the size and pace that an idea can spread through a community. You quickly get into overlapping connections within a social group.
I have theorized, along with many others, that through social media we can hold many more connections and begin to exceed the Dunbar number. I believe we can push to 400-500 personal connections and exponentially more non-personal connections. After grad school this is first on my list of major research projects actually. The other major thing is that social groups through social media overlap slightly less than before. Are personal connections are no longer bound by geography, or even calling people one at a time on the phone. They form better and are easier to maintain than previous electronic communication.
I think this is key in the modern revolution. I think because of social media revolutions, which still by the way require rapid formation, can become much larger. It can potentially even create a revolution of the masses. Influencers spread their message to a wider audience more rapidly. Additionally because of the mass nature of the revolution, it does not have to be in secret. The diffusion of the messages happen quick and the revolutions are considerably shorter from start to change.
Another fascinating development is when revolutions happen by the masses, militias are no longer required. This creates peaceful revolutions where the overwhelming demand of the people forces rulers to step aside. These revolutions have the ability to shut down all production and work in a country, control the media, and demand a greater level of change.
Because of the (potentially) more peaceful and mass nature of these revolutions I fully expect to see them increase. Egypt provides an example for how oppressed countries can demand and accomplish change. Just this week we are seeing similar revolutions in Bahrain and Yemen. I predict Uganda and Libya to quickly follow. By summer we will see at least 5 additional countries in the region have some form of revolution.
More importantly I think by the end of 2012 we will see a major revolution in China. Oppressed young workers have shown signs of uprising. These are exactly the type of individuals who can form a mass revolution. They are continuing to find ways around the state censored internet. Once this tips I believe we will see a rapid revolution spread throughout the country.