social networks

FMC Wire: Malcolm Gladwell wins argument with self edition

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! Oh, the irony.

Friends and colleagues are furiously sending me the link to Tipping Point author, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker piece, “Small Change: why the revolution will not be tweeted.” Throughout the article. the author compares and contrasts the high-risk activism of 1960s Civil Rights activists with that of contemporary individuals using online tools to complete low-risk activism.

Always an astute observer of the obvious, Gladwell slays the nonexistent voices who are insisting that social networks are all the organizing activists need these days. Save Darfur activists are not risking life and limb at Woolworth lunch counters, proving that Twitter has ruined activism.

This fact certainly has nothing to do with the reality that today’s activists are often campaigning on issues effecting people in far away lands, and direct action as opposed to consistent campaigning would make no sense.

The folly of Gladwell’s argument can be found in one paragraph, after he describes an email campaign started by a group of friends to find a bone marrow donor of South Asian descent for their ailing colleague:

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 and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.

Now look at that last sentence again, “Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” It is not the “Social network” that lessened the “level of motivation that participation requires,” it is the goal of the campaign. The goal of the campaign was to find a suitable bone marrow donor for their friend, not overturn segregation laws in the South. How does he know if those who signed up to the bone marrow registry would join the Woolworth’s protest or march in Selma? He does not know anymore than I do. Their willingness to take part in one campaign has no bearing on their willingness to take part in another, “high risk” activity. Nobody, not even us “Evangelists of social media,”  believe that “signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.” Taking part in low-risk activism through weak ties no more keeps people from taking part in high-risk activism, than the opposite. In other words, would the Greensboro activists not have sat at the lunch counter if they had given a dollar to the Salvation Army tin (low-risk) the day before? Allow me to inverse Gladwell’s own logic: The failure of the Greensboro students to donate an ounce of bone marrow proves that the kind of offline organizing practiced in the Civil Rights movement is ineffective.

Gladwell continues his attack by pointing out that  Save Darfur has a low level of giving to the campaign relative to its high number of Facebook fans. He does not take the time to understand that donations are not what the campaign calls for, or the situation requires. Save Darfur motivates citizens to demand political action from elected officials, it does not send aid to Darfur. Nor does it foolishly ask people to go to Darfur and clumsily act as human-shields. The fact that people are not doing that is not evidence of Facebook’s failings, but the campaign organizers’ strategy.

I received three emails yesterday from leading campaigning organizations. One from Save Darfur asked me to take 60 seconds and send a message to President Obama asking him to show leadership when heads of state meet to discuss Sudan in a few days. An email from Avaaz supported joining a Global Work Party as part of the 10:10:10 day of action (Over 6,000 events are scheduled in the scary real world…using online tools!). Finally, ONE thanked supporters for demanding Obama commit the needed money to the Global Fund. Over 85,000 took action. Yes, they did not put their lives on the line and sit in for days facing arrest or beating. This was not due to the existence of social networks, but because it would not have been an effective strategy. One could certainly argue that these campaigns could be more effective with high-risk direct action, but that is not an argument for or against social networks, but about the type of activism that has the most impact when dealing with geopolitical change movements.

I’m preparing a more coherent post on Gladwell’s oversimplification, but this edition of FMC Wire offers up a few links to refute Small Change, or at least get you and Malcolm thinking.

  • Cellphones role in activism in Africa is threatened
    CS Monitor examines how government investigators forced cell phone companies to shut off service in an effort to thwart protesters in Maputo.  Mobile phone penetration is greater than TV on the continent and a trend of blocking service could severely hamper activists across Africa. Thank, God mobile phones did not exist in the 60′s! Right, Malcolm?
  • Can Twitter lead people to the streets?
    Timothy B. Lee explains the difference between dedicated activists and the sympathetic populous needed for any movement to succeed. (Paying attention Prof. Gladwell?) Writing as part of a New York Times debate series, Lee notes that the advent of TV was what allowed the hardcore activists to be seen in action and the brutal conditions they faced understood by sympathetic Northerners who would rally to the cause — at varying levels of commitment of course. Lee slaps down Gladwell with this single paragraph:

    No social movement can succeed without activists willing to take serious risks for their cause. But other factors are also important. These include a critical mass of ordinary citizens who are at least sympathetic to, if not yet actively supportive of, the activist’s cause, and a strategy to reach and persuade as many of those citizens as possible. What makes the Internet revolutionary is not just that it makes it easier for activists to communicate with one another, but that it provides them with powerful new tools for informing and persuading their fellow citizens.

  • In China, even weak ties are crucial
    Michael Anti reminds us that there are places in the world, like China, where direct action is not an option and even the slightest movement of free information can threaten the government’s official line. While Anti does not mention other services, Gladwell shows his limited understanding of social media by sticking to Twitter and Facebook, but nearly 400 million Chinese are online and avidly use MSN Messenger and QQ for instant messaging. IM has opened up a whole new stream of communication and many users find ways to skirt the Great Firewall and communicate openly. Do these “weak ties” portend 400 million activists staring down tanks in Tienanmen Square: of course not. But Gladwell knows that information is power and online connections can bolster or create strong offline ties.
  • Gladwell on social media and activism
    Alexis Madrigal sees some value in Gladwell’s writing, but notices that he displays a fundamental misunderstanding of Twitter. Gladwell also makes the mistake of seeing “weak ties,” and “strong ties,” as polar opposites. In fact, the reality is that strong ties exist within large pools of weak ties. And Madrigal, like thousands of others has formed new strong connections through Twitter. The critical mass on Twitter gives users a new way to find kindred spirits and then actually meet up with them. Maybe not at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, but raising $1.2 million in a year is not so bad — Twestival anyone?Madrigal also takes issue with Gladwell’s determination that social networks are bad for organizing, because they are “networks,” and not, “hierarchies.” Several open source software platforms are developed by massive networks and a small steering group (Firefox, Linux, Drupal, Wikipedia). Gladwell states that the Montgomery Bus Boycott could not be organized by a “wiki-boycott.” I’m not sure exactly what Gladwell means, but ultimately he is simply stating that a wiki is the wrong organizing tool for a boycott or any type of major activism. Great. Now, who exactly is using a wiki for this purpose? It’s like arguing that a lawn mower is useless for cutting hair, therefore lawn mowers are overrated. Once again, Gladwell’s logic cuts through the argument nobody is making; he wins this round…against himself.

FMC Wire: Mobiles teach reading in Pakistan; Huffpo gets Twitter Editions; Twitter predicts real world outcomes

FMC Wire is our roundup of news and tips you (or we) might have missed. You can subscribe to the full FMC Wire feed on Google Buzz or Posterous.

Women’s literacy by mobile phone programme a success
UNESCO partnered with Pakistani provider Mobilink and a local NGO on this innovative project. The pilot worked with 250 adolescent women who were sent daily text messages in Urdu on an “interesting topic” and expected to respond. Testing of the women graded the majority (57%) at a “C” level or below on A,B,C,D,F scale at the beginning of the project. By the end of the 5 month pilot 60% had improved to an “A” level. UNESCO is funding expansion of the project to include an additional 1,250 girls in rural areas of Punjab.

Huffington Post launches Twitter Editions
[blippr]Huffington Post[/blippr], one of the world’s most popular news sites (is it really a “blog?”) continued their aggressive foray into social media by launching “Twitter Editions.” The Twitter editions contain featured posts across the top and [blippr]Twitter[/blippr] lists within widgets in the main columns. This is a spin off of a function Huffpo has used for major news stories like the Haiti earthquake. I think it works well in those situations, but I’m not seeing much added value here. I suppose Huffpo wants to pull your social media presence and “likes” onto the site to increase user time. The Huffpo Impact Twitter Edition (nonprofit activism vertical) includes listings of interesting philanthropy related Tweeps and “Global Nonprofits” curated by Huffpo editors. Like Huffington Post’s take on it or not, curating Twitter lists has become a key aspect of news gathering and press officers should take note.

  • Twitter predicts movie box office take — Researchers in the Social Computing Lab at HP Labs analyzed millions of tweets and accurately predicted box office rceipts of Invictus, Avatar, The Blind Side and Twilight. What else can Twitter predict? (via RB)
  • Facebook replaces “Become a fan” with “Like” — Blaming language for poor conversion rates, Facebook will start asking users if they “Like” a brand instead of asking them to “Become a fan.” Users become fans of four pages on average each month, but click “like” multiple times each day. Facebook doesn’t mention the fact that users are “liking” a friends status update or picture. I predict FB outrage when users discover that declaring they “Like” Monster Energy drink turns them into a permanent fan.
  • Google buys Episodic video platform — That YouTube Live feature never really got off the ground so Google has bought Episodic, a startup specializing in live video. Episodic is more advertiser friendly then Google’s other video property. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some synergy between this buy and Google’s efforts to move onto TV sets.
  • Cesca declares war on Glenn Beck — Not content to ignore Beck as a dancing monkey, Huffington Post’s Bob Cesca delcared his intentions to expose Glenn Beck as a huckster playing the part of radical Conservative. Beck’s attack on Obama’s “Red” grandparents was Cesca’s Pearl Harbor. Beck’s Waterloo? Every time he opens his mouth.

Have a link to share or tip for FMC? E-mail us at fmcblog (at) gmail

Facebook gains a scalp as AOL announces plans to Shutter Bebo

Bebo, we hardly knew ye.  Well, I hardly did. Bebo had a strong UK and Aussie following at the time of its sale to AOL for $850 million, but AOL wanted to use the social network to crack the US market. They failed to do so even with their strong messaging client aim and AOL execs announced plans to seek a buyer or close the site by the end of May.

Of course, they aren’t alone; Yahoo! has faced similar troubles turning their large base of user accounts and Messenger users into a relevant social networking player. Just to give you an idea how dominant Facebook is now, they gained twice as many users in 6 months as Bebo did in their existence. Still, 12 million users is nothing to sneeze at. It’s hard, but not impossible to imagine the site simply disappearing. Devloping…

Nigel Kendall of the Times Online blog offered five reasons why Bebo failed in a post today.

It doesn’t make any. “Social networking sites all have this problem,” says Nate Elliott, principal analyst with Forrester Research. “They cannot figure out how to make money. Even Facebook claims only to break even.” Social networking sites encourage users to post images, video, music and more, all of which costs money to host on servers. The hope is that sheer volume of users will prove appealing to advertisers, which has not proved to be the case (see below).

On the face of it, Bebo is still a popular site. It is particularly strong in Europe, with over 1 million active users in Ireland and 6 million users in the UK. It has only 10 million users in the United States, however, compared with Facebook’s 100 million. This uneven distribution of users makes Bebo’s rivals more useful as a way of keeping in touch with people around the world.

Bebo was designed to appeal to 13- to 24-year-olds by its founder Michael Birch, which created its own problems. As tales of paedophile internet stalking created panic in the media, parents became reluctant to allow their offspring unfettered access to the site. In addition, one of the most frequent complaints from Bebo users was the amount of dubious spam e-mail and messages they received.

In common with other social networking sites, Bebo failed to attract advertisers, who are reluctant to associate themselves with user-generated content. Advertisers prefer to pay to create their own microsites to build relationships with their audience, and will look to get the most bang for their buck, which – again – is not available via Bebo, owing to uneven global penetration.

Many internet users – particularly those of Bebo age – like to think of themselves as being free of the offline corporate society. Cultivating an independent, free-thinking image is an essential ingredient for internet success, as evidenced by the success of Google and the problems Microsoft has faced in making inroads online. Part of the reason for Facebook’s phenomenal success is its perceived independence. When a corporate giant such as AOL takes over, it can, for many users, act as a deterrent, an uncomfortable reminder of the corporate nature of the modern world they are trying to escape online.

SXSW Interactive Live: Crowdsourcing innovative social change (Tweets)

Follow the Live Feed.
Beth Kanter is hosting this session with other greats like Amy Sample Ward. Check out the Live-blog of user tweets. @karinab is Tweeting up a storm. Click the “FMC @ SXSW” navigation link to see all our live coverage from SXSW Interactive Festival.

Hashtag: #CrowdX
Tweet Maven: @ClaireSale

Forget Email, Facebook Is Where People Share Content

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AddtoAny reports twice as many shares to Facebook over E-mail

This is some interesting info that popped across my Google Reader. The abundance and ease of use of “share tools” mean that social networks are rivaling email as content sharing platforms. Interestingly, lags.

5 Billion

pieces of content were shared on Facebook per week during February, according to data released by the company.  This is up big from 2 billion per week only five months ago in September 2009.

A study released by content-sharing widget AddToAny indicates Facebook is sharing twice as much content as email currently. However, a separate study by rival ShareThis showed Facebook still a little behind email, with about 30% less content being shared. Taken together, Facebook is just as powerful a content-sharing platform as email. (Twitter is well behind both, but rising.)

Source: Facebook

via Silicon Alley Insider.

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Social Media Revolutionises Disaster Response for Haiti

By Kate Ausburn

On Tuesday January 12th, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation of Haiti. The earthquake has destroyed the nations capital of Port-au-Prince including the Parliament building, the United Nations national headquarters, the hospital, the prison and many homes and businesses. Tens of thousands are dead and millions displaced in an event that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described as the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.

Photo by IFRC.

The United Nations, who lost 46 staff members in the earthquake and have hundreds more still missing, are coordinating emergency relief efforts in Haiti. Due to proximity, the United States have been able to offer immediate assistance on the ground in Haiti, having taken charge of the Port-au-Prince airport where a large proportion of foreign aid is currently being received.

Representatives from many non-government organisations are also in the country assisting with distribution of water and food to displaced Haitians and with hospitals overwhelmed, Medecins Sans Frontieres are assisting with medical care in makeshift hospitals run out of tents.

Role of Social Media
The use of social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake has meant that an increasing level of coverage has reached more people in less time than that achieved through traditional media outlets. Social media has proved its value as a tool that can not only be used to communicate information but also to increase awareness and instigate a global call to action.

Photo by treslola.

Less than a week after the catastrophic event, donations of $US22mn had been pledged through the Red Cross text message campaign. Text message campaigns enable individuals to easily and impulsively donate while Twitter allows for promotion of the campaign to spread and reach a large global audience. Spokesperson for the American Red Cross, Gloria Huang, has said “…twitter has played an extremely significant part”.

Social media platforms such as a Twitter have been able to bridge the geographical and even causal distance that individuals may once have felt from such disasters. The response to the social media promoted campaigns for relief for Haiti have proven that solidarity with those in the midst of tragedy can be achieved, all that is needed is a simple method by which to become aware of unfolding devastation and similarly simple way to act on that awareness.

Photo by IFRC.

What You Can Do
There is much to be done in the rebuilding of the nations capital and supporting its displaced population in the interim. Out of this crisis comes the opportunity to not only restore but improve infrastructure in Haiti. A conference, to be held in Montreal on January 25, has been called to discuss the long-term plan for rebuilding Haiti.

While millions of dollars have been donated, continuing support will be needed over the upcoming months and years. You can assist by pledging a donation to any of the following campaigns:

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