During the summer of 2019, I started learning, and picking up computational social science at summer institute for computational social science (SICSS). The summer institute was very informative. I learned a lot of new skills, especially it made me fall in love with R programming language. Then I also started experimenting with python. Now I am all in for R when it comes to statistical analysis, and teaching. Simply it’s intuitive, and it’s FREEEE. I even got a part-time research assistantship because I can do statistical analysis in R. Aside from learning how to use R for various kinds of quantitative and qualitative analyses, I began to work with social media data. This really opened me up to different kind of questions. Twitter, Facebook and various other social media platforms have become important places where discourses take place, are spread, and infiltrate to our social life. At the end of the summer, I started joining a computational social science lab called (CaretLab) at Hunter College.
Currently at CaretLab, I am collaborating with other members in two projects both using social media data. These projects brought me into different fields of expertise that I have not had much experience. Like a good scholar, I read “literature” for what I do not know. It simply means that I find books, and articles about social media, and start acquiring knowledge about this social phenomenon. In my field, sociology, many people have cited Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas because it is one of the first monographs in sociology that looks at how social media shapes, changes a social movement or whether social media is an important component that makes or breaks a social movement. I started reading the book.
One of the premises of the book is that social media could be considered as the 21st networked public sphere, where people discuss politics, and social issues such as black lives matter, the rise of Trump. Even academics are increasingly engaging in public debates on social media. Some academics get their knowledge out faster on Twitter than through other traditional means such as contacting news outlets. Journalists are active on social media, and repeatedly quote and misquote tweets from academics, politicians, and celebrities. Recently Trump lost a first amendment case lawsuit because he blocked Twitter users from tweeting at him. The court decided that as a public official, the president of the United States, Trump cannot block Twitter users. The results of this lawsuit is significant because it legitimizes Twitter as an official public channel where public officials discuss policy matters, and what they say on Twitter should be taken as official.
The rise of Twitter and the likes raises the question how does the networked public sphere influence society, and shape individuals’ behaviors in that society? Twitter and Tear Gas starts to answer the question from the social movement angle. The book is well written, well theorized, and well researched book.
The book is organized in three parts. Part I is titled “Making a Movement.” It looks at various factors that make a social movement a movement in the digital age. This part delves into the definition and attributes of a networked public sphere, and considers how it affects the ways social movements form, how rebellions take off. Part 2 is called “a protester’s tools.” It examines various aspects of social media as essential tools for organizing social protests. In this part the author makes explicit how she uses capacities and signals theory of social movements as main theoretical frameworks for the various social movement cases in the book. Finally, “After the protests” is the final part of the book. In essence this part is about the outcomes of protests that are examined in the book, and how the government responds to those protests using digital tool or not. Eventually, Tufekci shows that government and powerful actors start to adopt the strategies that activists use to suppress movements, and come up with new strategies such as disinformation to maintain the status quo.
The book starts out with a discussion about how digital media challenges social scholars to pay attention to the HOW question. How is a social movement organized? Tufekci writes:
In much popular writing about social movements, the how of organizing is mentioned only as an afterthought. Logistics and practical details are generally undramatic and do not lend themselves to journalists’ narratives, which tend to be focused on the deeds of a few leaders. Great speeches and successful boycott campaigns are remembered; the organizers who oversaw the transportation of hundreds of thousands of people, under tense conditions and sometimes significant repression, are largely forgotten.
She further points out the difference between social movements in the 21st century, and those of the past:
In contrast to the past, when movements first built up capacity over a long time and only then could stage large protests, today’s movements that are initially organized mostly online generally start the hard work necessary to build a long-term movement after their first big moment in the public spotlight. 61
She argues that social movements now become big very fast, and enter the public spotlight before building necessary capacity such as leadership, and institutional alliances. One can think of Women’s March, MeToo, BlackLivesMatter, and Occupy. All these movements became big very fast. Yet the impacts of those movements are difficult to pin down. They are all 21st century movements. Participants could easily organize using social media’s affordances. It is both a curse and a blessing when a movement can get attention from the public so fast, but fails to further other long term systematic changes.
One central term of the book is network internalities:
Network internalities are the benefits and collective capabilities attained during the process of forming durable networks which occur regardless of what the task is, or how trivial it may seem, as long as it poses challenges that must be overcome collectively and require decision making, building of trust, and delegation among a semi-durable network of people who interact over time. I contrast these with “network externalities,” an established phrase that is often defined as an increase in benefit from a good or service when the number of people using that good or service goes up. For example, a fax machine is more useful if there are many people using fax machines. In contrast, network internalities refer to the internal gains achieved by acting in networks over time.
Simply these are gains over time. So if one thinks about practices and skills that a population gain through organizing a progressive movement, one thinks of network internalities. Furthermore,
Network internalities do not derive merely from the existence of a network – something digital media easily affords – but from the constant work of negotiation and interaction required to maintain the networks ass functioning and durable social and political structures. Building such effective networks is costly; they are not “cheap-talk networks” in the sense that people are merely connected to one another. Instead, people have invested time and energy and gained trust and understanding about the ways of working and decision making together. Sometimes, doing seemingly pointless or unimportant work gives groups the capacity to do more meaningful things under circumstances, like negotiating with adversaries and shifting movement tactics. Building network internalities can be viewed as similar to building muscles. There is no loss in terms of getting there if you drive a car instead of biking to the place, and you can climb a mountain by carrying your own gear or by having a Sherpa carry the gear. However, if the next steps require muscles or mountaineering experience, the capacity gained by biking or carrying one’s own gear is a benefit in itself and may be crucial to be the person’s ability to respond to the next challenge. 76
Technology can help movements coordinate and organize, but if corresponding network internalities are neglected, technology can lead to movements that scale up while missing essential pillars of support. In the past, organizing big protests required getting many people and organizations to plan together beforehand, which meant that decision-making structures had to exist in advance of the event, building the network internalities along the way. Now big protests can take place first, organized by movements with modest decision-making structures that are often horizontal and participatory but usually lack a means to resolve disagreement quickly. This frailty, in turn, means that many twenty-first century movements find themselves hitting dangerous curves while traveling at top speed, without the ability to adjust course. Although participatory leaderlessness and horizontalism are a source of strength in some ways, it is also a treacherous path over the long haul. 77
If I could, I would quote this entire book on this blog post. One reason for me to find many things “quote-able” from this book is that I do not have any background in social movement. So every line looks valuable to me. I have to say that Tufekci is a very good writer. She is a thoughtful writer, and knows how to write to defend her position well. After reading the book, I asked myself: if I have to take one part away, which part would I eliminate from the book. I could not answer that question. Everything seems relevant and well thought-out for me. If this blog post makes you interested in the book, the good news is that you can download it here for free.