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Weak Ties and the Arab Spring

http://smg.media.mit.edu/classes/library/granovetter.weak.ties/granovetter.html

http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20110916_4696.php

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/09/so-was-facebook-responsible-for-the-arab-spring-after-all/244314/

http://pressthink.org/2011/02/the-twitter-cant-topple-dictators-article/

http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/social-media-including-facebook-twitter–political-tool-for-good-or-evil/articleshow/10197114.cms

Mark Granoevetter’s principle of the “strength of weak ties” easily applies to the Arab Spring.  For those who do not know, the Arab Spring is a series of protests in the Middle East and Northern Africa countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  Much ado has been made about social media’s role in the Arab Spring – At first, many have speculated that social media outlets Facebook and Twitter are the driving reasons behind this revolts, that these revolts are a “social media revolution”.  But many dispute social media as the reason behind these revolts, saying that instead it is repression that fueled these revolutions.  This is completely logical but still, we cannot deny that social media played a crucial role in the revolution.  Upon reflection, one thing is clear – Facebook and Twitter and other social media tools facilitated the revolution by capitalizing on the power of weak ties.

Think about it – Facebook has many features that can easily make things, events, or people visible to you, even if you are not directly connected to that thing or person.  One such feature is the ability to “like” something; if one of your Facebook friends likes something, it is likely that it shows up in your newsfeed.  Its appearance in your newsfeed immediately plants the event or thing liked in your conscience, and thus, information is shared. The more Facebook friends that like that page, the more likely it will appear on your newsfeed.  This is true of any kind of tie that characterizes the Facebook friendship; you are just as likely to see something liked by a close friend as you are to see something liked by someone with whom you are just acquaintances (weak tie).  But, tying into Granoevetter’s principle, it is more likely that you will already have knowledge of whatever your close friend on Facebook liked because of the strength of your relationship – therefore, these weak ties are the ties that will provide you something you might not have known if it weren’t for that tie.

For example, the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” has approximately 1.5 million fans.  It is impossible that all 1.5 million people who liked the page are directly or strongly connected to Said.  Therefore, the page’s popularity must have grown due to the weak ties that exist among this group of people.  The specific weak tie that is most likely the driving force behind this page’s popularity is that of a local bridge.  You may not have any ties of any sort to the events occurring in the Middle East except for an acquaintance that moved to the Middle East for work or for an exchange student you met once a few years ago, as hypothetical examples; your relationship with that person is a local bridge, because you have no friends in common with that person so without this tie, the distance between the two of you could increase by a lot.  To continue this example, you might see this person like Said’s page on your newsfeed and because this person is not close to you and there isn’t a lot of shared information between the two of you, this page is unfamiliar to you and so you click on it out of curiosity.  The page could either resonate with you or not – if it does, you might like the page, and therefore add to its number of fans. This could have happened a thousand times over in the case of Said’s Facebook page, increasing the awareness of the page and the event a thousand times over as well, mobilizing support.  And all this happened because of that weak tie, that “friendship” between you and that person who originally liked the page.  In accordance with Granoevetter’s principle, that “friendship” aka local bridge between you and that person  offered you access to things you otherwise would not necessarily have known about, i.e. the knowledge of Khaled Said’s death (Easley, Kleinberg, 46).

There is no doubt that weak ties like these on Facebook facilitated the execution of these revolts by raising awareness, not just of group pages, but of actual staged protests which were scheduled on Facebook.  The Facebook activity, such as likes or comments, that events or videos can generate can make those events/videos incredibly visible on newsfeeds and thus have an incredible domino effect in spreading knowledge (and support, in the Arab Spring’s case) very quickly, all through weak ties.

It’s pretty obvious that social media did not create these revolts, but rather was the tool that people used to help execute the plan.  All of this just goes to demonstrate the power and beauty of connection, even if it is just weak – which in this case, is stronger than a strong tie.

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