It’s amazing to see how widespread internet and cell phone access and web 0.2 tools have forever changed the way that social movements form and operate. I am sure we have only seen the very first glimpse of this and are far from understanding how it works. The term “infectious idea” gives us some guidance on how to think about this in network terms: The social mobilization spreads through the network like a (positive) infection. I can give an infection to many people at the same time – while still keeping it. That is different from other things that flow through a network, such as money for example.
The fact that this courage to stand up for freedom spreads like the common cold leads us to think a lot about the “masses”, huge, amorphous, leaderless groups of people with little individual power, who get together to topple long established regimes. It’s like standing back in awe, watching a force of nature.
But, while these movements have proven powerful in forcing the end of the old order (at least in some of the countries), will it be possible (or even desirable) to develop a new order by the leaderless means of facebook and twitter?
My humble prediction is that you will have to look offline as well as online to find the networks that will shape the future of these countries: Existing and emerging leaders of different groups (both pro- and anti-democracy) will play distinct roles in negotiating the future. They will draw some of their strength from their respective ability to infect the masses with their ideas. But the masses as such will not sit down at the negotiating table.
It would be fascinating to sit down with some people from the old establishment, the new movements and some long time observers in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen to ask: “Which individuals, organizations and groups will be most influential in shaping your country’s political future?” And get an in-depth picture of how they are linked in terms of administrative connections, personal friendships, conflict and the ability of putting political pressure on each other. Time would tell how far an offline network map today is able to predict the developments in the future.