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On Gladwell on social media

Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in the New Yorker magazine a few weeks back on online social networks and social change. It was interesting enough to think twice about and wonder what implications it had, if any, for EPIC Global Challenge.

Leaving aside for the moment the conflicting information we already have about the author, namely (1) he is extremely intelligent and a good craftsman as a writer, and (2) he publishes provocative opinion based on partial evidence disguised as thorough analysis, an approach which sells books well (cf. The Tipping Point). We like Gladwell, and we too want to provoke interesting conversation, although not with false or incomplete information or wild leaps in logic. Let’s just take his article at face value, for the sake of carrying forward a constructive conversation, rather than getting mired in parsing his argument. (Unless you’re into that – in which case, email me separately.) (Opinions expressed in this post are my own, obviously, and not those of EPIC as an org.)

Alongside a pretty good overview of the Civil Rights movement and some worthwhile supporting bits about other movements (successful and failed), Gladwell makes three main points in this piece:
1.  “[Online] social networks are effective at increasing participation – by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” I.e. the medium is very good for mass-awareness-raising by a certain limited degree, but not for gaining anyone’s deeply invested commitment to a movement. He gives the U.S. Civil Rights movement as an example of high-risk, high-investment participation, and Facebook-based Darfur fund raising as an example of large numbers of people with almost no actual investment.

To this I say: No contest. The revolutionary thing about the Internet as a whole is its role as a delivery mechanism for tons of information to tons of people. The great thing about social networking online is a smaller version of that. It connects people, even if only a little bit.

EPIC plans to enlist groups of online collaborators to coordinate efforts across religious, ethnic, and national conflict boundaries in order to create peaceful engagement. Does EPIC Global Challenge fit into Gladwell’s statement? Sure, we can get participants, but can we get deeper investment of their effort to create a movement or solve a political conflict? What will we need to do for the answer to be Yes?

2. “Social media are not about hierarchical organization [of the sort the U.S. Civil Rights movement saw in 1960]. [They] 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…. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically….” He gives a number of examples.

Does EPIC fit into this statement? Internally as an organization and externally as a widespread network of groups or pods collaborating, how might we avoid the strategic limitations of a “sprawling, leaderless” format? What part of our organization builds the network and what part steers the ship? Once we’ve built a sturdy network, how will it form into coherent working groups?

3. The social-networks model of organizing people “favors the weak-tie [low-investment, low-commitment, low-risk, low-facetime] connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger.” Fair enough, on the surface. He then makes a puzzling leap in logic to say this model “shifts our energies [away] from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

Do we think this statement is true? Is his argument structurally unsound here? Could social networks also give someone access to critical life-saving, game-changing, state-overthrowing information? Do online social networks really undermine in-person organizing?

Is EPIC planning to do things in such a way that won’t just give people access to more information, but more… peace? More productive collaboration across conflict lines?

Are “online social media” being lumped into one single category without any thought given as to the function or organizing idea behind each instance? Is Facebook just like Twitter just like just like the Well just like a chatroom just like EPIC?

To be fair, to the author: Judging from some remarks he made in an online followup to this article, it looks like Gladwell’s deeper message is simply: “Don’t think that online social media is going to replace diligent, strategic, in-person organizing for changing the social landscape.” In which case he’s made his point well. I just want to be sure his point isn’t taken too far, all the way into devaluing what social media CAN do.

What say ye, EPIC Challengers?

The Challenges of Distributed-team Work

This morning was my last day in rural Washington State.  After discussing notes for this post on Facebook from the (truly wonderful) Portland Airport this morning, I’m writing this up on the ground back at Stanford.

So what does rural Washington have to do with EPIC?  Well, we passed an interesting milestone a few months ago.  We now have more than ninety colleagues around the world working on EPIC.

That’s incredibly exciting, and deeply encouraging to me.  But the milestone I’m referring to is this:  Except for the occasional conference, no matter who we are, what our role, or where we are…

…from here on out, most of us will always be somewhere else.

This means the center of gravity, and the locus of project control and leadership, has shifted from Stanford, to being globally distributed.  And this means that we at Stanford are beginning to transition from a central, lead role, to a role of

a) supporting a widely dispersed community of passionately committed colleagues, and

b) preparing to support a global network of university, government, business, and NGO partners.


So, one of my goals for the last three weeks was to learn how it feels to work remotely as part of EPIC’s globally dispersed team.

Answer?  Not good.

Distributed teamwork is tough, especially in the early stages of a new, ambitious, complex project.  And while the connection tools are better than ever, things like Skype, streaming video, and WebEx are just good enough to make you really aware of how much you’re missing by not actually being in the same room as your colleagues.

Some conclusions:

1.  Low bandwidth tools (like email lists, chat, and wikis) are actually better for getting real work done on a distributed team–tho they need more upfront thought and effort than just talking to your coworker face to face.

2.  But doing #1 well actually creates its own problem.  Filtering the ensuing message traffic is its own daunting issue.

We’re taking a first shot at addressing this by moving our generic Google group to an apps powered list — This will allow us to create sub-lists by team focus, which will enable project members to subscribe only to the lists relevant to the teams they are on, and not have to see traffic from the entire organization.

At the same time, this will improve the transparency and very high trust environment so basic to our work, because all EPIC members will be able to go see anything anyone is doing, in any part of the organization, at any time.

3.  We have to put much more effort into ensuring that our colleagues around the world are as much or more at the center of the project than we are at Stanford.

4.  Having said all that …after three weeks of feeling very disconnected, yet seeing how the work has forged ahead while I’ve been gone, it’s even clearer to me –my team is an amazing group of committed, determined, very smart people, and I’m more grateful for them than ever.

Thanks, you guys!

Another update!

Today, we (Beverly, Michelle, Tayo, and Anke) continued working on our video. We have gotten pretty far since our last post about our storyboarding. We are almost done with our In Plain English video for the EPIC Challenge and we can’t wait to share it with you! Right now, we are in the process of editing our video but when we are done, we’ll post it. Be sure to check it out! In our video, we are explaining what the EPIC Challenge is and we are also publicizing our first challenge, which is decreasing gang violence. We hope it is as entertaining of a video for you to watch as it was for us to make!