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Network effects in the Arab Spring revolutions

The linked article gives a practical example of several topics covered in class: graph theory (social networks, and information flow in social networks), signals and information cascades, direct benefits, network effects and tipping points.

During the Arab Spring revolutions (in Egypt, Tunisia and otherwise), social media played a large part –Facebook and Twitter were used to collaborate actions within the masses, while Youtube was used to demonstrate to the world the revolutions themselves. The article mentions how the internet, which brings together people who are interested in a myriad of topics –has managed to bring together people passionate regarding the revolution, to “connect with each other and organize”. That is, the internet, and a subsection of it (social networks), have formed a large graph, both on a global and, in case of social networks connecting people involved in the Arab Spring revolutions, a local scale. The nodes in the graph are the people themselves and the links are the connections helped to form by personal knowledge as well as the use of the internet and social networks.

The article breaks down the phases of the revolution in 4 steps:

  • A core group of committed activists get together to “do something completely crazy.”
  • The government cracks down, and this behavior makes people who are sympathetic to the cause “rally to the support of the crazy ones.”
  • As the protests continue and it looks as though they might have some tangible effect, at some point “it seems worth it even for just normal reasonable people to start joining in.”
  • Eventually, the protests become so large that “even their opponents pretend to be part of them, so as not to be on the wrong side of history.”

The fourth point illustrates a case of direct benefit cascades and signals. The opponents of the protests ignored their own initial signals (opposition) and became part of the direct benefit cascade, where the direct benefit to be had in this case was that they would not be “on the wrong side of history”.

We can also think in terms of network effect here. The function p(x,z) = r(x)f(z) determines the true “reservation price” of an individual where r(x) is the intrinsic reservation price and f(z) is a function that is related to the network effect. There could be a value q such that when p(x,z) crosses q, a given individual will join the revolution. Initially f(z) can be thought of as being small, but due to the use of social media, it increased until p(x,z) crossed the “tipping point” and converged to the other stable equilibrium. Thus, initially there was a small number of people taking part and it quickly increased due to the network effect.

Another very interesting and relevant point (related to informational cascades) can be observed in the following paragraph:

“What helped dictatorships like those in Egypt and Tunisia survive for so long, Tufekci says, is that before the internet and the social web came along, people had no way of knowing whether their own dissatisfaction or revolutionary fervor was shared by others, apart from a small group that they might know personally. That’s enough to create small pockets of resistance, but in order for a movement to break out and become a significant force, the members of that movement have to know that others are also willing to fight — and possibly die — for that cause. Social media, Tufekci says, makes it possible to see this happening in real time, and that helps create momentum.”

This is an example of the informational cascades being set up and is extremely close to the scenarios described in the homework regarding party invitations, and how being able to see who’s attending a party (knowing about other people’s decisions) influences an individual’s decision.

Thus, this article illustrates several aspects of “networks”, as taught in our course and goes on to show how such phenomena, as described in the course, occur naturally due to people’s behavior and how these simple concepts can be used to describe a vast range of phenomena.


One Response to “ Network effects in the Arab Spring revolutions ”

  • Abdus Salam

    The review regarding the article written by Mathew Ingram is absolutely to the point. Networking through Information superhighway is the name of the game of the recent Arab Spring Revolution. Networks in between like minded people will certainly help to augment the inherent struggle for achieving the just cause of general mass of the different countries of the world, so that justice is implemented.

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