The following thoughts were inspired by one of Zeynep Tufekci’s recent posts entitled “Faster is Different” on her Technosociology blog. Zeynep argues “against the misconception that acceleration in the information cycle means would simply mean same things will happen as would have before, but merely at a more rapid pace. So, you can’t just say, hey, people communicated before, it was just slower. That is wrong. Faster is different.”
I think she’s spot on and the reason why goes to the heart of complex systems behavior and network science. “Combined with the reshaping of networks of connectivity from one/few-to-one/few (interpersonal) and one-to-many (broadcast) into many-to-many, we encounter qualitatively different dynamics,” writes Zeynep. In a very neat move, she draws upon “epidemiology and quarantine models to explain why resource-constrained actors, states, can deal with slower diffusion of protests using ‘whack-a-protest’ method whereas they can be overwhelmed by simultaneous and multi-channel uprisings which spread rapidly and ‘virally.’ (Think of it as a modified disease/contagion model).” She then uses the “unsuccessful Gafsa protests in 2008 in Tunisia and the successful Sidi Bouzid uprising in Tunisia in 2010 to illustrate the point.”
I love the use of epidemiology and quarantine models to demonstrate why faster is indeed different. One of the complex systems lectures we had when I was at the Sante Fe Institute (SFI) focused on explaining why epidemics are so unpredictable. It was a real treat to have Duncan Watts himself present his latest research on this question. Back in 1998, he and Steven Strogatz wrote a seminal paper presenting the mathematical theory of the small world phenomenon. One of Duncan’s principle area of research has been information contagion and for his presentation at SFI, he explained that, amazingly, mathematical epidemiology currently has no way to answer how big a novel outbreak of an infectious disease will get.
I won’t go into the details of traditional mathematical epidemiology and the Standard (SIR) Model but suffice it to say that the main factor thought to determine the spread of an epidemic was the “Basic Reproduction Number”, i.e., the average number of newly infected individuals by a single infected individual in a susceptible population. However, the following epidemics, while differing dramatically in size, all have more or less the same Basic Reproduction Number.
Standard models also imply that outbreaks are “bi-modal” but empirical research clearly shows that epidemics tend to be “multi-modal.” Real epidemics are also resurgent with several peaks interspersed with lulls. So the result is unpredictability: Multi-modal size distributions imply that any given outbreak of the same disease can have dramatically different outcomes while Resurgence implies that even epidemics which seem to be burning out can regenerate themselves by invading new populations.
To this end, there has been a rapid growth in “network epidemiology” over the past 20 years. Studies in network epidemiology suggest that the size of an epidemic depends on Mobility: the expected number of infected individuals “escaping” a local context; and Range: the typical distance traveled.” Of course, the “Basic Reproduction Number” still matters, and has to be greater than 1 as a necessary condition for an epidemic in the first place. However, when this figure is greater than 1, the value itself tells us very little about size or duration. Epidemic size tends to depend instead on mobility and range, although the latter appears to be more influential. To this end, simply restricting the range of travel of infected individuals may be an effective strategy.
There are, however, some important differences in terms of network models being compared here. The critical feature of biological disease in contrast with information spread is that individuals need to be co-located. But recall when during the recent Egyptian revolution the regime had cut off access to the Internet and blocked cell phone use. How did people get their news? The good old fashioned way, by getting out in the streets and speaking in person, i.e., by co-locating. Still, information can be contagious regardless of co-location. This is where Old Spice comes in vis-a-vis their hugely effective marking campaign in 2010 where their popular ads on YouTube went viral and had a significant impact on sales of the deodorant, i.e., massive offline action. Clearly, information can lead to a contagion effect. This is the “information cascade” that Dan Drezner and others refer to in the context of digital activism in repressive environments.
“Under normal circumstances,” Zeynep writes, “autocratic regimes need to lock up only a few people at a time, as people cannot easily rise up all at once. Thus, governments can readily fight slow epidemics, which spread through word-of-mouth (one-to-one), by the selective use of force (a quarantine). No country, however, can jail a significant fraction of their population rising up; the only alternative is excessive violence. Thus, social media can destabilize the situation in unpopular autocracies: rather than relatively low-level and constant repression, regimes face the choice between crumbling in the face of simultaneous protests from many quarters and massive use of force.”
For me, the key lesson from mathematical epidemiology is that predicting when an epidemic will go “viral” and thus the size of this epidemic is particularly challenging. In the case of digital activism, the figures for Mobility and Range are even more accentuated than the analogous equivalent for biological systems. Given the ubiquity of information communication networks thanks to the proliferation of social media, Mobility has virtually no limit and nor does Range. That accounts for the speed of “infection” that may ultimately mean the reversal of an information cascade. This unpredictability is why, as Zeynep puts it, “faster is different.” This is also why regimes like that of Mubarak’s and Al-Assad’s try to quarantine information communication and why doing so completely is very difficult, perhaps impossible.
Obviously, offline action that leads to more purchases of Old Spice versus offline action that spurs mass protests in Tahrir Square are two very different scenarios. The former may only require weak ties while the latter, due to high-risk actions, may require strong ties. But there are many civil resistance tactics that can be considered as micro-contributions and hence don’t involve relatively high risk to carry out. So communication can still change behavior which may then catalyze high-risk action, especially if said communication comes from someone you know within your own social network. This is one of the keys to effective marketing and advertising strategies. You’re more likely to consider taking offline action if one of your friends or family members do even if there are some risks involved. This is where the “infection” is most likely to take place. These infections can spur low-risk actions at first, which can synchronize “micro-motives” that lead to more risky “macro-behavior” and thus reversals in information cascades.