Sunday, February 27, 2011

Some recent articles

"Recap: Social Media and Egypt's Revolution."  This article gives an overview of how twitter and facebook were used in Egypt.

"Facebook, Twitter, Social Change Movements and Regime-change Revolutions."  This article views the social web as "a catalyst to slowly change the social context" rather than just a tool of communication.  "[T]the role of the social web as a coordination tool is much less important in a regime change revolution than in a social change movement."

"Study Says Internet Makes Youth More Engaged Citizens." "Put social networking tools in the hands of youth, and they are more likely to engage in their government."  The Internet is good and it helps people.

 "From Innovation to Revolution."  This is a little point-counterpoint between Gladwell and Shirky.  Shirky wins.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Social Media and Revolution

"Again, this doesn’t make a tweet a heroic act, nor does it mean that significant social action can’t be taken in the absence of social media and, it must be said, I haven’t heard anybody arguing in favor of such notions.  Nevertheless, social media and other communication technologies are helping to shape the political landscape in important ways."

This is a great article from Greg Satell, who apparently was part of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.  He reviews how social media worked then and now, and gives some comparative thoughts between Ukraine's and Egypt's revolutions.  Good stuff.  And more poking at Gladwell.

Some of the internet crowd who started Egyptian protests

"The online organizers in Egypt are quick to spread credit. No single person, group, Facebook page or political party planned this movement. It just happened, they said. Partly in response to the events in Tunisia. Partly by years and years of lingering economic, social and human rights problems.

And even within the blogging and social-media-activist community, there were several efforts. A group called the April 6 Youth Movement had been leading internet-driven protests since at least 2008. It also had a hand in rallying people in January.

Saleh, the young man who grew up yearning for an internet connection, said he was amazed at the degree to which the internet played a role in the movement."

See also:!/

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The experts I turned to for ICA knowledge

There are people who specialize in aspects of Internet collective action.  I'll list the ones I know about and have learned from.

Clay Shirky is perhaps the most forward thinking and innovative expert in the field.  He has two books: Here Comes Everybody, and Cognitive Surplus. I recommend both.

Howard Rheingold started at the beginnings of the Internet with The Well.  His book Smart Mobs helped me make sense of Anonymous.

Kevin Kelly was also an early pre-Internet person.  His book Out of Control is long but instructive on why non-hierarchical activity works.

Don Tapscott wrote Grown Up Digital, about how a generation that has grown up with the Internet thinks differently than us old folks.  He also wrote Wikinomics, which I haven't read.

James Surowiecki I don't know much about but really liked his book The Wisdom of Crowds.

These are the people I turned to when I was trying to make sense out of Project Chanology in 2009.  My article is at

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Maybe that's not a collective action after all?

"According to an embedded MS Word document found in one of the HB Gary emails, it involves creating an army of sockpuppets, with sophisticated 'persona management' software that allows a small team of only a few people to appear to be many, while keeping the personas from accidentally cross-contaminating each other. Then, to top it off, the team can actually automate some functions so one persona can appear to be an entire Brooks Brothers riot online."

Ok, this is kind of scary.  It's apparently possible to make it look on a forum, or facebook, or other places online that there is a large group of people promoting one viewpoint or idea, when in fact it's possibly just one person with some fancy software.  But even scarier than that, "the US Gov. is attempting to use this kind of technology. But it appears from the solicitation it is contracted for use in foreign theaters like Afghanistan and Iraq."

So, what to think of this?  Will this destroy any credibility of an online chat group's concensus?  Can one person sway a conversation on a forum by simply out sock-puppeting all conversation?  Very bad.  Very scary.  But I assume there will be ways to expose such actions in the future. Or at least I hope so.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell gets it SO WRONG!

I liked Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point.  It has nice gems like "Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place.  It is not.  With the slightest push - in just the right place - it can be tipped." (p. 259)

But a few months ago Gladwell wrote a New Yorker magazine article titled "Small Change."  In it he argues that new social media like Facebook and Twitter are not important nor useful for social protest.  These tools provide "weak tie" relations, while Gladwell claims that effective protesters require "strong tie" relationships amongst themselves.  He claims that "weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism."

This is true, I suppose.  But consider the group Project Chanology, which in 2008 chose to protest against the Church of Scientology.  At the first protest, most people there did not even know each other.  In Phoenix, where I protested, many of the people had never seen each other before, and had perhaps only briefly chatted on a chat room, or looked at a web site for times and directions.  Project Chanology came out of the group Anonymous, so it makes perfect sense that these people didn't know each other in real life.  Yet Project Chanology has continued from then until today. You could say these were not just weak ties, they were practically no ties!

Gladwell does say that weak ties are useful; "There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information."

But his main point is that you can't look to new social media as tools for activism.  " In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro [the civil rights lunch counter protest]."

Well now it's a few months later.  Tunisia and Egypt got rid of their years-long entrenched despots.  And guess what?  They used new social media extensively!  And for that matter, so did Project Chanology, which maybe Gladwell hadn't heard of.  So he got it wrong, horribly wrong.  And now people just make fun of him.  I especially like The Tripping Point.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

the economic leverage of Egyptian protesters

" If you want to avoid future foreign policy Obaminations, be aware that nonviolent protest has the potential to strangle even the most brutal regime, if it can definitively threaten the viability of its core industries. In these circumstances, a mass movement equipped with fearsome weapons of mass disruption can topple a tyrant equipped with fearsome weapons of mass destruction."

While this is not about ICA, I wanted to point to it to show how complex some collective actions can be. This article discusses the economic leverage that the protesters in Egypt had.  They shut down tourism, which is a huge section of Egyptian economy, almost instantly.  Toward the end, the Suez Canal was threatened with closure.  These economic strangulations turned the business class against Mubarak.  And as the author points out, such leverage is not always available to protesters.

So it is not just that you have the right tools, but you also need a pliable situation to give you more leverage as well.  And a lot more variables besides.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Is a leader inevitable in ICA?

University of Maryland Sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci thinks you need a leader.  She says that "it is wrong to assume that open networks 'naturally' facilitate 'leaderless' or horizontal structures. On the contrary, an examination of dynamics in such networks, and many examples from history, show that such set-ups often quickly evolve into very hierarchical and ossified networks not in spite of, but because of, their initial open nature."

Dr. Tufeckci tries to show that leaderless collective actions naturally end up with a leader coming to the top.  I disagree, but maybe because we're talking about different things.  Citing the current Egyptian revolution, she shows a graph of the most read tweeters who are involved in the revolution. By this I assume she thinks that Wael Ghonim should be considered a "leader" because he is followed the most on  She also cites the "iron law of oligarchy" which states that after enough time in any organization "a group of insiders emerge and vigorously defend their turf, and almost always succeed."

   A leader has authority within the group to make decisions for the group.  Of course, I want to use Project Chanology as my example.  Is there someone within Project Chanology who has authority within the group to make decisions for everybody else? No.  And by design there never will be.  Locally, there are people with more influence who make decisions that are usually followed, but even there no one has a position from which to wield any authority other than the rest of the group saying "ok."  If the rest of the group said no, that has not changed any hierarchical position or decision-making system. It has probably wounded someone's ego, however.

Dr. Tufekci, I believe, seems to think that a collective action must naturally grow to a desire to gain power and control for itself. This is not true.  Project Chanology has one simple goal, expose Scientology's evil side.  It has no desire nor mechanism to take over Scientology, or to become some legal entity with a board of directors and bank account.  It is simply like-minded people working together to accomplish a simple goal. Once that goal is achieved, Project Chanology ends.  IF Project Chanology wanted to continue on from there, then Dr. Tufekci might be correct.  But part of the definition of an Internet collective action for me is that it is leaderless, has a simple goal, and will dissolve once its goal is accomplished.  Which reminds me, I should work on a tight definition of ICA...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Pentagon didn't see Egyptian revolt coming.

"In the last three years, America’s military and intelligence agencies have spent more than $125 million on computer models that are supposed to forecast political unrest. It’s the latest episode in Washington’s four-decade dalliance with future-spotting programs. But if any of these algorithms saw the upheaval in Egypt coming, the spooks and the generals are keeping the predictions very quiet.  Instead, the head of the CIA is getting hauled in front of Congress, making calls about Egypt’s future based on what he read in the press, and getting proven wrong hours later."

In my article on Project Chanology, I concluded that "In summary, collective action is easy to form and easy to do when it is Internet based. This makes collective action more likely and potentially more powerful once begun As more and more of these Internet based collective actions succeed in their established goals, such success will breed attempts at imitation. If Project Chanology succeeds in pressuring the Church of Scientology into significantly altering its methods or its strength, more people will look at Anonymous' actions and history for ideas on how to mirror their success. Project Chanology already shows the surprising speed and size that such collective actions can take. Such actions should be expected more and more in the near future, but it will not be possible to predict their creation."

Even those trying to organize such protests don't know for sure if it will work or not, because it's up to the decision of many individuals whether they see the value of the endeavor or not.  So I don't think you CAN predict such things, nor make a model to help you predict.  But the more times Internet collective action succeeds, the more likely it will be used again.

Some of the collective in Egypt that won today


April 6 Youth Movement


Asmaa Mahfouz

and on, and on. This will be a very long list when the history of the Egyptian Revolution is written.  Internet collective action was a big part of it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Cognitive Surplus" by Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky's new book, Cognitive Surplus, about what we should do with our spare time and skills.  Rather than sit around watching TV, like my generation did, people now can do collective action, thanks to the Internet.

"Social production is the creation of value by a group for its members, using neither price signals nor managerial oversight to coordinate participants' efforts." [p. 118]  Shirky gives tips on how best to accomplish this social production.  Community, cost, clarity, and culture are four things needed for social production, which Shirky delineates.  It's a useful book to help figure out what is happening in this new culture where people are interconnected around the world.

Thanks to the Internet, "we can now turn massive aggregations of small contributions into things of lasting value." [p. 161]  More and more we see this everywhere.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

synonyms for collective action; military uses ICA?

Here are a few synonyms for collective action:

smart mob
hive mind
open source
crowd sourcing
social production

Meanwhile, DARPA is offering a reward for a military vehicle design.  They are asking the public for designs:

While this isn't crowd sourcing since it is actually a contest for monetary reward to the winner, it is still seeking input from the public. Maybe it's a start.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Anonymous protects itself

"[F]ive supporters of Anonymous’ elite arm AnonOps brought down the Web site for HBGary, a small, Washington D.C.-based security services firm."

Aaron Barr, of HBGary, chose to "infiltrate" Anonymous and find their "leaders."  Allegedly he was planning to sell this list to the FBI.  Anonymous was not amused.  They proceeded to hack into HBGary's web site and twitter account.  This is not good for business if you're claiming to be security experts.

If you have a large group of people who live on the Internet, who enjoy trolling and tweaking groups you don't like, and who want to remain Anonymous, then that group probably has the ability to react when threatened.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Internet and social networking

The Pew Internet and American Life Project in it's report "The Social Side of the Internet" states that "Fully 80% of internet users are active in one kind of group or another, compared with 56% of non‐internet users; and 86% of cell owners are active in a group, compared with 62% of non‐cell owners."  If you want to be socially active, the Internet is where it's at.

This is a marked contrast to what Robert D. Putnam was fretting over in his 2000 book "Bowling Alone."  He claimed, with many statistics, to show that Americans are becoming more and more isolated and less social.  He did not, however, spend much time in his book thinking about the Internet.  This is where you can find like-minded people, or people with your same interests, quickly and worldwide.  No longer is your search for friends, social groups, or even "community" restricted geographically.

Project Chanology, the Anonymous branch that protests the Church of Scientology, came about because geographic boundaries no longer matter for collective action.  They have been protesting worldwide from their very beginnings in 2008 to this day. 

Because Putnam didn't perceive the changes and new abilities the Internet provides for social activity, he missed where "community" was moving to.  Likewise, people who feared that the Internet would isolate people did not foresee Facebook, twitter, and the multitude of forums that have sprung up.  Turns out people are still social, they just added a new tool to make socializing easier and better.

incorporating ICA into our economy

I've been pondering how all this collective action and volunteerism fits into the health of our economy. If people do even technical things like programming for free, what does that do to jobs for programmers?  This video explains a bit of what's going on, and suggests that collective action be incorporated into business.  I haven't digested this idea yet, but it's pretty interesting nonetheless...

Saturday, February 5, 2011

who has the upper hand in ICA action against a government?

This Slate article by Torie Bosch claims that authoritarian regimes are just as savvy as protesters when it comes to making use of the Internet .  So you want to start a revolution on facebook?  Know that someone from the government will no doubt check out your facebook friends list once they learn of your desires.  Want to catch tweets from a protest organizer?  Just understand that your friendly dictator may just grab the list of who all is being tweeted.

I think this article is overly pessimistic about the dangers of using the Internet to protest a dangerous government.  Is the author claiming there's some other alternative way to protest and stay safe?  If you're going to organize, then you just might have spies in your midst, whether you are online or not.  One big advantage of using the Internet is the potential size of your network.  If you start organizing a protest and can reach thousands of people at once instead of perhaps dozens, there is strength in numbers.

There are ways to try to be safe online, just as in any other way of trying to organize. You can use TOR to help maintain your anonymity. The core group can use only nicknames and be tucked away on some innocuous web site, rather than or something that would be checked. 

Mainly, though, it is just common sense that will keep you as safe as possible while still organizing and promoting.  It's a game of cat-and-mouse whether you're online or whether you are not.  Besides that, there are companies like Narus that provide sophisticated systems to governments for sifting Internet traffic. These systems might make you vulnerable unless you are a very sophisticated user.

I don't have any experience protesting a dangerous regime. I helped organize protests against the Church of Scientology, which is known for being aggressive and litigious against its perceived enemies. Some of us sought to maintain our anonymity, but I chose to simply be right out in the open and just be very careful with what I did and said. So far, I've never been sued by them, though I have been deposed several times, been followed by private investigators, been smeared online and in fliers, etc.  Perhaps it's a good system for some people to be open and others to strive for anonymity.

Friday, February 4, 2011

news media can't understand collective action

Today on Al Jazeera a protester was asked why the protesters don't appoint a leader.  The protester said "There is no need for leadership.  People are organizing themselves."

I keep hearing reporters and news hosts asking why the protesters don't have a leader.  The answer is that it is a collective action. They have a simple goal - getting Mubarak to step down - and a simple method - protesting.  The rest is being done ad hoc as needed, such as organizing a security system for the Tahrir Square.

Many people just can't wrap their heads around a group of people accomplishing a goal without leadership.  They should learn soon.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Egyptian government commandeers cell phone texting

"Egyptian authorities forced Vodafone to broadcast pro-government text messages during the protests that have rocked the country, the U.K.-based mobile company said Thursday."

This should be expected.  Even in the US there is now an attempt to give the president a "kill-switch" for the Internet.  When the government feels threatened, the natural reaction is to try to take away the tools of the opposition, and even to use those tools.

Once it is known that the government has taken over one method of communication, a work-around can be used or created.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

tweeting without Internet connection

Egypt severed their Internet connection when the protests against President Mubarak started.  Google and Twitter got together and built a work-around, where someone in Egypt can phone in a tweet, which will then be put on

It's getting harder and harder to be a despot.