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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Limits of Social Media

Face-to-face contact is not obsolete.

The telephone has not made face-to-face contact obsolete, as many once believed it would.  But have the new “social media” – Facebook and Twitter – finally done what earlier technical advances couldn’t do?  Do the events in Egypt these past two weeks make this any more plausible?

Reports like this one from the New York Times tells how a Facebook page dedicated to an Egyptian citizen beaten to death by police catalyzed popular sentiment against the ruling regime.

While it is almost impossible to isolate the impact of social media tools from the general swirl of events that set off the popular uprisings across the Middle East, there is little doubt that they provided a new means for ordinary people to connect with human rights advocates trying to amass support against police abuse, torture and the Mubarak government’s permanent emergency laws allowing people to be jailed without charges.

The Egyptian government’s desperate act of shutting down the Internet after several days of unprecedented public protests by anti- and pro-Mubarak groups merely validated the power of social media.  It didn’t stop the protests, perhaps because it was interpreted as a sign of weakness, and a couple of days later the Internet was restored.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Thesis

There are definite limits to the power of social networking, however.  In an article in last October’s The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of The Tipping Point, wrote,

The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change — if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash — or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.

Change of that kind requires concerted action on a large scale over a sustained period, as we have witnessed in Cairo last week.  You have to follow orders, which often means putting yourself in harm’s way or restraining yourself from succumbing to passions of the moment.  The catch is that you are expected to do this without close monitoring by your superiors.  That requires discipline, and that, in turn, means strong ties (to borrow a concept from Mark Granovetter).

Facebook and the like [Gladwell continued] are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.

Strong ties — ties of family or among deeply committed coreligionists — bind individuals into effective formal and informal organizations.  For example, some reports describe the important role played in the beginning of events in Cairo of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Founded in 1928, it is well-established and well-organized; precisely the kind of hierarchical organization of strongly-tied individuals that can maintain discipline under chaos.  (Note I’m just using this group as an example – I’m not necessarily endorsing it.)

Though not impossible, it’s very hard to motivate strangers in large numbers to make large sacrifices for an abstraction or for someone they don’t know.  Gladwell is right that Twitter can’t create strong ties.  But it certainly can be used, as it has in Cairo, as a tool for coordinating individuals who are already strongly tied.

Social Media and the Market

In a dynamic society people move from one social network to another, and ties are broken almost as fast as they form.  To take advantage of the opportunities for economic and cultural development, however, people need the freedom to form new ties, especially weak ones with strangers, as well as to break old, strong ties when the time comes.  In free societies they can do both.  (This is one interpretation of Granovetter’s phrase, “the strength of weak ties.”)

The stakes are considerably lower in a market exchange, even with someone you don’t know, than when relying on someone to stand with you against an armed mob.  But both require some degree of trust: for the latter, trust borne of knowing and being bonded with your comrade (strong tie); for the former, trust arising from the freedom of association (weak tie).  And for both, if those levels of trust are to reach useful levels, I believe you need to have some kind of physical contact.  In the case of battle, people have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, while in trade the contact may be directly across a negotiating table or with a trusted intermediary.

This is not just me being “old school.” I shop on the Internet and enjoy keeping my own Facebook page up to date.  What I’m saying is that the roots of the trust that enables me to do these sorts of things with people I don’t know are the lessons I learned at some point in my life from face-to-face interactions.  I believe this is typical.  It’s these kinds of lessons that most of us may then, under the right rules of the game, apply to profitable dealings with strangers.

Science may obliterate distance, as they used to say, but not the need for personal contact.  And so, fundamentally, you can’t Tweet free trade any more than you can Tweet a revolution.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.