October 8th, 2010

[PHOTO] Tree stump

A tree stump in Warkworth, well in the process of decay, caught my attention while I had my camera with me. There's something about its peculiar texture, especially on close up, that gets me. It's almost fractal in its structured complexity.

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[BLOG] Some Friday links


  • At Acts of Minor Treason, Andrew Barton does not recommend living in the Vancouver-area city of Richmond, built on the sort of silt that liquifies during earthquakes like the one generally expected to occur sooner or later.

  • Beyond the Beyond's Bruce Sterling posts interesting links to design groups interested in the designs and architecture of Communist modernism in East Germany and Belgrade.

  • Crooked Timber's John Quiggin uses the end of Germany's reparation payments to the Entente powers of the First World War, in the fullest sense, to reflect on the 20th century. It might have taken a long time, but at least public opinion is mobilized against war in a way it wasn't in 1914.

  • Daniel Drezner thinks it quite good that the United States is losing interest in Central Asia. What interests did it have there, and how much influence did it actually have?

  • Eastern Approaches remarks on the recent environmental catastrophe in Hungary, with its tidal wave of alkalinic and toxic waste that kills rivers, forces permanent evacuations, and strips off the top layer of human skin.

  • Geocurrents remarks on how Indian memories of the Mughal Empire has encouraged some--especially Hindu nationalists--to believe Pakistan and Bangladesh are united in wanting to create a new Muslim state in South Asia including India's Gangetic heartland, notwithstanding India's overwhelming strength over both countries combined.

  • The Global Sociology Blog argues that particularly in the United States, but also elsewhere, growing inequality isn't expressed in classical class conflict but rather in terms of hostility towards the socially excluded.

[BRIEF NOTE] On the actual strong ties of social networking

I quite like Economic Woman's reaction to Malcolm Gladwell's recent essay in the New Yorker claiming that social networking systems like Facebook and Twitter can create weak ties, flattened decentralized network, but that they lack the strong organization necessary for them to achieve. She takes Gladwell to task for his sloppy generalizations.

One of Gladwell’s main arguments is that real-life activism is based on “strong ties,” while social media enables “weak ties.” (I’m breaking out the scare quotes to remind myself, as much as anyone else, that Gladwell has an unnerving ability to make a concept feel true just by labelling it. For a good takedown of this concept, check out this post, via Madrigal.)

This ignores the strong ties that are reinforced online. But in my experience, Twitter is also a tool that can turn weak ties into strong ties. And while it isn’t automatic, social media is particularly suited to creating friendships across traditional social divides like age, class, and race.

A couple years ago, most of my time was spent with other students and high school friends. The folks I followed on Twitter were ex-colleagues, casual friends, and strangers. But all of that communication has bred intimacy, and lead to more face time. The divide between online and offline relationships is increasingly fuzzy, and as a result, I interact with a broader group of people.

Gladwell doesn’t account for this because, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t bothered exploring or even thinking deeply about social media. At one point, he sets up Wikipedia in opposition to hierarchical offline activist groups. The implication is that all online networks are leaderless and chaotic. The thing is that Wikipedia has both a leadership structure and institutionalized structures for dispute resolution. There isn’t one editor who reads every entry, but there is definitely one guy with final say on strategic direction.


This is certainly the case in my own experience; I pick and choose who and what I want to build strong ties with. As an example, on Facebook I recently joined a group calling for a certain large number of Torontonians to state they don't want Rob Ford as mayor. I joined, but I'm not going to do anything about it since there's nothing I can do. This certainly isn't the case with the ties I built with other people online, at first distant ones, but then as my need for contact grew sharply substantially closer ones. USENET and E-mail lists gave me something; E-mail saved my life; Livejournal helped me plug into various networks, on Prince Edward Island and in Toronto and elsewhere; and by the time I came to Toronto, I had any number of friends I could get in touch with. I chose to use these systems because I saw in them the potential for strong ties. And leaving my experience aside, let's not speak about the social networks that actually have inspired and organized activism, like the recent G20 protests in Toronto.

Oh, Malcolm Gladwell: you generalize so convincingly.