In Anatomy of Revolutions, UCSD’s Fowler Points to the “Strong Ties” of Online Social Networks

When I met last month with James Fowler, the UC San Diego expert on social networks, one of several topics we discussed was the role that Twitter played—or might have played—in the recent political revolutions that overturned governments in Egypt and Tunisia.

A lot of research will be coming out on the topic, Fowler said, but the UCSD professor was doubtful that someone in Tunisia or Egypt exerted much interpersonal influence through Twitter’s online network. Rather, he described Twitter as a broadcast medium that provided information in a way that enabled protesters to see when their probability of success had shifted. “So everybody changes all at once—just through information, not through persuasion—their calculus of whether or not they should participate in the protest,” Fowler said.

As it turns out, the purported effects of social networking in what some have dubbed “the Facebook Revolutions” have come under pointed criticism from none other than Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker staff writer and author of “The Tipping Point” and other books. In an interview with CNN last week, Gladwell says he’s skeptical of some of the more grandiose claims on behalf of social media. Like Fowler, he says the role of social media in staging revolution hasn’t really been assessed yet, and a lot of research is on the way. But if history is any guide, Gladwell says it’s unlikely that Twitter or Facebook were the key ingredient because past social revolutions occurred without communication tools. For example, he says the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 when only 13 percent of the people in East Berlin had a telephone.

“So, I mean, in cases where there are no tools of communication, people still get together,” Gladwell told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “In looking at history, I don’t see the absence of efficient tools of communication as being a limiting factor.”

To Gladwell, the more important question than how political organizers used Twitter and Facebook is whether years of unemployment, poverty, and oppression created a pervasive political mindset—and a catalyzing demand for change—among the masses.

I asked Fowler this week for his take on the debate. He declined, but he pointed me to a commentary that he wrote with “Connected” co-author Nicholas Christakis for CNN in November—before the Mideast revolutions were in full bloom. It turns out this debate over online social media was underway long before the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. In their article, the Connected co-authors responded to an article about social media that Gladwell had written last summer:

“Malcolm Gladwell, author and staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, recently argued there was no hope that online social networks could be used for large-scale change. The reason is that the connections between people online are usually weak ties, not strong ties such as those to our family, next-door neighbors and real friends.

“But this perspective overlooks something important. People do not just have countless weak ties online. Buried among all those weak ties are some strong ties. And they can make all the difference.”

Fowler has focused much of his research on the strong ties of social networks because those are the bonds that help people to quit smoking or lose weight—and they extend beyond our closest friends and relatives—to their networks of friends and relatives. He is scheduled to explain how that works in a talk in San Diego next week that is focused on using social networks to detect epidemics. You can find more information about that presentation here.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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One response to “In Anatomy of Revolutions, UCSD’s Fowler Points to the “Strong Ties” of Online Social Networks”

  1. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Thanks for this piece, Bruce. I really don’t get Malcolm Gladwell’s argument in this case. He seems to be saying: revolutions happened in the days before Facebook and Twitter; therefore Facebook and Twitter can’t be key ingredients in modern revolutions. There’s no real logic there, just contrarianship. It will be interesting to see whether a different story emerges from Fowler’s work.