The Impact of Social Web Technologies:
breitband asks Micah Sifry

Febr. 12, 2011
Transscript: Joachim Gruber
Quelle: breitband, The revolution will be facebooked, Deutschlandradio Kultur, 12.2.2011
(in cache)

Question (Andreas Noll, breitband):

There's a big discussion going on right now, whether social web technologies have a political impact or not. People like Clay Shirky and Cory Doctorow see a positive impact of the web and its possibilites, while people like Evgeny Morosow have doubts that the internet will lead to more democracy and political change. Do you think there is a need for a theory of some kind of web activism, explaining those effects?

Answer (Micah Sifry):

Well, what I think we do need is more data and less anecdotes. That's for sure, because right now we're all mostly arguing just with anecdotes. So, in the case of the US I think I can say with confidence Barak Obama would not be president if there were not for how skillfully he used the internet. Hillary Clinton probably would have won the democratic nomination. In Iran, obviously the protesters of the recent elections there were not successful, and people like Clay Shirky who thought "this was the big one" were mistaken, in the sense that social media helped sharpen world attention on what was going on inside Iran, but that didn't change the internal power dynamics. What's going on in Egypt now is a battle, and interestingly enough some of the young movement organizers at the heart of this uprising clearly studied what didn't work in Iran and were adapting their tactics that they could use so their protests could swarm around the police.

So I think this is an ongoing argument. I personally think that the evidence will ultimately show absolutely that the internet is a game changer: It alters the dynamics of organizing, communication in ways that shift power subtlely but importantly towards ordinary people and away from closed hierarchical institutions. I think when you'll read Morosow's book "Netsolutions" you will find that he is on all sides of the question.


In the beginning you said we need less anecdotes and more data. How can you actually measure the impact of online political activism? Is it possible to do so?


Again, the hard part is that you don't get to do this experiment with a control. This is real life. And there are cases at least in the US where if you for example remind people using text messaging to their phones when an election is coming up and that today is election day and click here to get a reminder of where your polling place is, that turn-out will go up.

This goes along with other literature that shows that direct personal connections in politics drive participation. The most effective tool involving people in politics are knocking on their doors and talking to them or hearing from your friends.

So, to this degree social media is building more connections between people than used to be, and it's certainly making the velocity of these connections move faster. Imagine how much time it would take to stuff 100 envelopes with a flyer and then lick the stamps and write the address on and today 100 emails are sent in no time. A very good counter argument is whether the ease of use is actually degrading the quality of the communication. In other words, we think we've actually done something by sending something, but in fact we have not changed power in the slightest, but we feel better. That is a danger that symbolic acts will replace real acts.

But most organizer that I know work in this space and Personal Democracy Forum, the organization I run, we've been doing this now for 8 years, gathering internet organizers, political activists and hackers, they will tell you that there is a ladder of engagement and it starts at a very low level, and if all you manage to do is to get someone befriend a cause, befriend a candidate, that's an entry point for a richer conversation. In the past you didn't even have that ability to make that conncetion with a very weak supporter and then try and move them up the ladder of engagement. So organizers, I think, would say that these tools are helping them not hurting them.


Apart from saying that the internet can be an entry point to real activism, Morosow and others say that there are not enough persons to use these tools (internet, facebook, twitter) for activism. So, there's always the discussion about quantity of connections, quantitiy of people who actually use this. Don't you think we have to go beyond the argument of numbers ?


Oh well, the truth is that we are beyond the argument of numbers. I think what you're seeing is there is a popularization of the use of these tools now, and so people in the mainstream media, who are usually the last to know about any significant effort to mobilize for social change, have suddenly woken up and say "Oh, this facebook thing is not a fad, it's real! I better show that I get it!" So they are the ones who are talking the most about the numbers of supporters somebody has on facebook, where the real organizers -I think- are way beyond that and what they are looking at are things like supervolunteers. We have an understanding that there is a hierarchy of participation now online. 90% of the people who visit a website are only lurking, they are just reading, they don't even bother to comment, that's a bigger step. And may be 7 - 9 % will actually leave a comment, and it's only 1 - 2 % that will do all the heavy lifting. Wikipedia has millions of people who have may be contributed one edit, but only a few thousand who are actually the hard core that keep that site up and running every day.


What difference does it make now when people are able to communicate and collaborate online, I mean people that have not been able to do that before the social web?


I think it's a tremendous shift. I mean again, we are talking about moving some amount of previously wasted social energy that people spend on watching things like TV, completely passive, apolitical use of their leasure time. And we are talking about shifting a few percent of that, which is hundred of millions of person hours, into socially engaged activity, and it may be simply the social engagement of editing a page on Wikipedia that is creating the world's greatest free resource of information that we've ever seen, or it may be the social engagement of tracking a politician making sure that people know the truth about that person. All of these little action are beginning to add up into an additional power, exerting force on the process and this is very different of what the leaks do. So, what we're seeing is slowly but surely disrupting the old systems of power.


Somehow I heared between the lines the effects of this "network". How can these networking effects of the social web translate into the offline world, into real political actions?


I think that the answer is given country by country, and probably city by city, and its going to be up to serious organizers devoting the time to actually make those conversions matter. There is no question that there is a lot of noise and chatter, and people just looking to advance their carreers in all this that going on right now, but that the conversion is the holy grail: This is about figuring out how to use tools that don't cost very much and connections that are very easy to make into disruptions to the status quo.

For example: We are seeing how protesters around the world are learning from each other how to use dispersed networking tools to basically figuring out where the police are and not go where they are. This is happening in London, in England, where these student protests taking place, and people are mesh networking in order to avoid police catteling, and those same techniques are the ones that we are thinking are being used right now in Kairo.

By the way: We saw it happening here in the US in 2008. Around the Republican National Convention exactly the same thing was going on. There was a guy on Twitter who was coordinating all the information he could get about where the police was and sharing that. He wasn't even in Minneapolis where the Republican Convention was happening, but he became a node of vital information because dispersed mesh networking communication like Twitter made that possible. More and more people are learning how to do this.

Similarly, what Wikileaks represents. If Julian Asange is put in prison and Wikileaks is shut down, it doesn't matter, because the knowledge of how to create a transnational information sharing network is now widely dispersed, and there are similar sites popping up all over the place.


Coming back to what has happened in Tunesia and what is happening now in Egypt: Would you say that all this could have happened without things like facebook and twitter?


Absolutely. People have been asking folks in those countries that question and the general answer they got back is: "Yes, the revolution would have happened, but it would have taken linger and it would have been bloodier."

The truth is: Of course revolutions have happened before the existence of social media, or shall I say using other kinds of social media, including people talking in cafesand passing pamphlets around. But we are now in the 21st century, and these are the tools that people are using.

By the way: The key point to me the extent to which the internet a relatively freeer for some conversation and collaboration, it's very important to understand: It is not perfect. There are many many ways that people can in fact as ... points out in his book - if you are naive about this, creating a facebook page to start organizing a protest is just a great way to let the secret police know who to arrest. And facebook has a certain responsibility here, which they haven't completely lived up to, to either warn users: "Don't use us, because this may be a very easy way to let people figure out who to arrest!" or "Here is a secure way to use us." Right now they aren't doing either. They actually require people to use their real names, which is a great way for the police to immediately spot who the organizers are. So now we are in a way in between places. The smart organizers are using encryption and they are covering their tracks in other ways. This is a case where it's possible that the old powers, the police agency to spy on citizens are being somewhat neutralized, not completely but somewhat.


You partly already answered half of the question I'm going to ask you now: If we just say that the internet has a significant impact on politics and therefore society, what would change if that was really true and all over the place accepted. What effect will this have on the way we see the internet and especially the way governments see the internet?


Well, it's a double-edged sword. I think it is absolutely disruptive to the status quo. We're growing more and more accustomed to the idea that we have the power in our own hands. literally, with our smart phones, to know instantaneously what's actually going on and to share that with each other. By definition governments have existed for long time by monopolizing information and spinning, you know, manipulating. So these things are now in sharper contradiction with each other.

The flip side, though, is what we are beginning to see in some parts of the world. A new kind of open government that allows for cooperation and collaboration with citizens in a new way to actually make things work better. This is especially true at the city level, where cities are opening up a lot of their data and enabeling hackers and developers to create wonderful new tools so that cities services will work better and citizens can help each other, and in effect we self-govern. We call it "we-government", right, rather than e-government. So the question of our time is whether the people who fear the disruptive effects of open informatioin clamp down on, and that is absolutely a strong position. We have a lot of people in the US government who are arguing ... you know ... they are waving distress of cyberwar and talking about cybersecurity, and they are actually calling for somehow reengineering the internet, so they have a backdoor into every communication anyone makes -which I think is frankly insane- vs. people who are saying actually a more open government is going to be able to tap into widely dispersed sources of information, that the public is actually smarter than the beaurocrats and that if we allow for a more porous relationship where there is sharing and a process of trial and error, they are making things work better and we'll save money, and may be we'll needn't as many beaurocrats.

So you see, there is kind of a collossal conflict coming between those two visions of the future and I don't know which one will win.


You already mentioned the problem of speed. Is the rest of the social structure, even the political structure ready for the possible rapid changes that the internet would allow? Because of the speed of information and communication and its possible impact is so much higher than the possible reaction in the real world. Political decisions sometimes take years or even decades, while information flows within seconds. So, is the real political offline world ready for this speed?


I think you are actually raising an excellent point. It's the one I worry about the most. I think that I would say first of all, suggest that you stop to drawing a distinction between online and offline, because they are completely merged right now, right? A government official with a blackberry in his pocket is both online and offline, right? Speed and volume: The internet has no limits on capacity the way that the old media did. So, the issue is whether we can adapt and develop better filtering systems for this tidal wave of information that is coming out on us all the time. There is market opportunities here for new forms of media. The old media, in the newspapers, the magazines you had professional editors who in effect filtered raw information and told you what was important each day. Right? Now we all know that that's a flawed system because of the biasses of those people, and besides we can all get this information ourselves. The problem is -as you are pointing out- is, there is too much of it.

So, what I'm seeing happening is: People are beginning to form their own censuring networks through their friends and the people that they trust, and that those networks in effect filter what's important. I'm only looking at the things that people are forwarding to me or that people are retrieving, who I already determined they are trustworthy guys. Issue number one is whether we end up in silos, and so I'm only going to listen to people who I already agree with, may be, and thus the internet may create more polarization. We don't know. The academic literature on this is divided. But the other one is: No question that the velocity of information is absolutely damaging to our ability to know with confidence. You know: We had a case here in the US a few weeks ago, where a congress woman was shot -an attempted assassination- and of course the media swarmed around the story and a few of them got it wrong and said that she'd been killed, and then later they had to retract that. So, we'd had this problem of mistakes before, and now it's even going to happen faster and more visibly.

But look: We're human beeings. We've managed to adapt to all the other aspects of the information revolution over the last -what- 500 years, since Gutenberg invented moveable type. In those first 100 years we didn't have a distinction between fiction and non-fiction. They were just printed words! And then -you know- people said "Wait a second, some of these words are clearly not real, you know, that's fiction", but we didn't have a label for it. I think we are going to evolve similar systems for managing these new flows of information. The question is whether we as a society will learn to be more media literate. That is a big challenge. So I'm very glad you asked that question.


I mean that we as individuals can adapt, I think it's not that much of a doubt. But don't you think that's even more difficult for those old grown structures and political systems? How can they adapt? How do you see them adapting? You mentioned Open Data, so governments open up and create interfaces to the online social sphere. But how do you see governments reacting -or adapting- to this new reality, and in contrast: how do you think they should react?


The issue is ... - there are two parts. One is: What should governments do in normal times? And two is: What should they do in crises? And I would argue that they shouldn't wait for crises to happen to develop their plans for managing and being part of the real time media circus.

They have to already be engaging and have to develop -if you will- a trusting relationship with the public, and they can't assume that the old approach, which was to withhold information and dribble it out in a very controlled way, is going to serve them well. That approach breeds distrust.

And when a crisis hits is when you see the gap between the old practice and the new reality most obviously. That's when governments should admit that they are also turning to the public for help to understand what's going on, and should admit that in fact the public is resilient, and that we together can filter and figure out an understanding rather than putting a government official out to say: "The situation is ..."

This happened in London when the subways were bombed. They were first saying that it was just a power surge, and that they later had to retract. The public was already ..., you know people were taking pictures right inside the tube tunnel with their cell phones and sending them to the BBC saying "This was a bombing", when the government was still saying it was a power surge.

So, you know, you don't want to be caught in that position where suddenly your authority and credibility have been terribly damaged because your information methods were so old-fashioned.

We are now all capable of watching and observing and sharing the reality that we are seeing around us. This is very powerful and important. Why the movement in Egypt has been succeeding, I think: They were able to get -you know- photos of police beating up ordinary citizens, and "before and after photos" of people who were killed -and then put them up on youtube, put them up on facebook, where people could see for themselves the reality of what the police were doing. That is a very powerful corrective to state run media telling you everything is fine.

Version: 7 December 2011
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Joachim Gruber