Faster is Different. Brief Presentation at Theorizing the Web, 2011

Over the weekend, I attended an great conference called “Theorizing the Web.”  Lead organizers were Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey, two awesome graduate students at University of Maryland. We have been meeting regularly for years and a common complaint among us has been the lack of suitable academic outlets for the kind of work we do.

Well, if it doesnt exist, make.  And thus this conference was born.

I was on a symposium with Dave Parry, Deen Freelon, March Lynch and Henry Farrel titled “Revolution 2.0? The Role of the Internet in the Uprisings from Tahrir Square and Beyond”  In order to make sure that we had enough time to interact with the audience as well as with the backchannel, we limited speakers to just seven minutes.

Audio from the panel is here and my powerpoints for my brief presentation are here.

Please keep in mind that this was not a comprehensive presentation due to the conscious time limit.

I basically argue against the misconception that acceleration in the information cycle means would simply mean same things will happen as would have before, but merely at a more rapid pace. So, you can’t just say, hey, people communicated before, it was just slower.

That is wrong. Faster is Different.

Combined with the reshaping of networks of connectivity from one/few-to-one/few (interpersonal) and one-to-many (broadcast) into many-to-many, we encounter qualitatively different dynamics. I draw upon epidemiology and quarantine models to explain why resource-constrained actors, states, can deal with slower diffusion of protests using “whack-a-protest” method whereas they can be overwhelmed by simultaneous and multi-channel uprisings which spread rapidly and “virally.” (Think of it as a modified disease/contagion model). I use comparison between the unsuccessful Gafsa protests in 2008 in Tunisia and the successful Sidi Bouzid uprising in Tunisia in 2010 to illustrate the point.

Under normal circumstances, autocratic regimes need to lock up only a few people at a time, as people cannot easily rise up all at once. Thus, governments can readily fight slow epidemics, which spread through word-of-mouth (one-to-one), by the selective use of force (a quarantine). No country, however, can jail a significant fraction of their population rising up; the only alternative is excessive violence. Thus, social media can destabilize the situation in unpopular autocracies: rather than relatively low-level and constant repression, regimes face the choice between crumbling in the face of simultaneous protests from many quarters and massive use of force. While, unfortunately, we do see violent reactions from regimes, it is certainly not a desirable or sustainable outcome for the autocrats. They want to rule, not fight civil wars.

I will write a much more detailed paper and post about this at some point but I’m throwing this out there as initial foor for thought. Feedback welcome!

12 thoughts on “Faster is Different. Brief Presentation at Theorizing the Web, 2011

  1. Benjamin Geer

    I agree with you that faster is different, but what remains mysterious is the relationship between dissent on the Internet and protest in the streets. Dissent on the Internet isn’t enough; regimes are overthrown by street protests. When people manage to protest in the street in large numbers, they demonstrate that the regime is no longer able to impose its rule by force. So the question is: how do large numbers of people become willing to protest in the street, rather than simply joining groups on Facebook and staying home?

  2. Ibn Larry

    Very interesting. Agree with Ben above that a future paper will have to address how internet activity translates to actual people in the streets. I’d also be curious to hear your thoughts on how the government itself also benefits from faster communication. For example, the government of Bahrain seems to have successfully mobilized a pro-regime movement both on the internet and on the street.

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