Matthew Yglesias describes this Malcolm Gladwell piece as a ‘smart’ take on ‘how the kind of “weak ties” promoted by online social media can’t do the kind of work of the kind of “hard ties” that the leaders of the civil rights movement used to knock down an authoritarian system.’ I did a bloggingheads with Julian Sanchez yesterday where we discussed this piece – and, to put it mildly, we didn’t find it smart (Julian describes it as his ‘most recent excretion’). Not because it was necessarily wrong, but because it did the usual Gladwell trick of taking a vaguely counter-conventional-wisdom argument (in this case, a rehashing of what Yevgeny Morozov has been saying for the last couple of years), adding some quasi-digested social science and a couple of illustrative anecdotes, and then spinning out a New Yorker article. He’s a good writer (for pre-masticated values of ‘good writing’) but a quite mediocre thinker.
I’ll confess to being particularly annoyed by the Gladwell piece because it seems like the purest possible distillation of the intellectual-debate-through-duelling-anecdotes that has plagued discussion over the Internet and authoritarian regimes over the last few years. As this new report (PDF) for the US Institute of Peace (co-authored by Sean Aday, me, Marc Lynch, John Sides, John Kelly and Ethan Zuckerman) discusses at some length, we more or less have no idea of whether Internet based media hurt authoritarianism, lead to group polarization or anything else.
The sobering answer is that, fundamentally, no one knows. To this point, little research has sought to estimate the causal effects of new media in a methodologically rigorous fashion, or to gather the rich data needed to establish causal influence. Without rigorous research designs or rich data, partisans of all viewpoints turn to anecdotal evidence and intuition.
The report provides a kind of toy investigation of the Iran protests using network analysis and basic data on informational diffusion to discipline the anecdotes, but is primarily focused on pushing for actual research (which would take substantial investments in developing tools and gathering data) that might try to answer the relevant questions. Without such research, we’ll be left relying on Malcolm Gladwell articles to guide our thinking. And that is not a particularly good place to be.