Monday, August 22, 2011

Wikipedia, Twitter & Mobility

A recent New York Times piece, written by Noam Cohen, asked the question, "When knowledge isn't written, does it still count?"  The inquiry targets a recent effort by those within the Wikipedia movement criticizing how the online encyclopedia structures its dependency on written secondary sources for article validation.  A documentary made by Achal Prabhala, Zen Marie and Priya Sen, titled 'People are Knowledge', dives into the issue of using 'oral citations' as a means of documenting and thus validating information obtained from cultures that do not currently have a wealth of textual accounts- in the vernacular or otherwise- for use on the largely text-based Wikipedia.  Using a variety of examples, such as the evolution of play and rules on games indigenous to local regions in India and South Africa, the documentary makes a powerful case for the inclusion, or at least discussion, of oral citation methods.

Yet the potential use of oral citations caused a stir among fellow Wikipedians, some of whom see the use of non-authoritative primary source material (essentially oral interviews) as anathema to the larger mission of the online encyclopedia.  They point to one of the central pillars of Wikipedia- No Original Research- as the source of primary objection.  What is at stake with this issue is the larger question of certified knowledge, or, more precisely, the methods utilized by encyclopedic efforts in order to make the claim that their presentation of knowledge is, indeed, certified.  While the case discussed above specifically deals with a cultural conflict within Wikipedia, the issue of knowledge certification looms large over many disciplines now finding their traditional hierarchies of authority questioned or laid low by a wave of culture digitization and digital models of knowledge production.  But, on an even larger scale, the question over the applicability of 'oral citations' has roots in a debate that surrounds the intersection of both oral and written knowledge that go back to the onset of the printing press- further even to be sure, though the focus of this survey lies in the Gutenberg era and its pursuant centuries.  I would like to use this post to discuss how the 'oral citation' debate now underway in the Wikipedia community is tied to a much larger question on the nature of transferring oral culture into written culture that is best explained, in my opinion, through the lens of mobility potentials.  This approach brings a greater understanding to not just knowledge production and certification methods of the past but also in the present, marked by the arrival of new social networking platforms.

In my response to Federico Giordano's essay 'Almost the Same Game', I argued that an essential characteristic separating digital and analog games was their difference in mobility potential.  Elaborating on Claude Shannon's understanding on the nature of information, that a transmitted message contains no information if its outcome can be predicted (specifically in the realm of math, but also in more mundane notions), I suggested that the next definable quality of information should be its capacity to undergo modification through transmission cycles.  The range by which information could be modified through circulation, by either the transmitter or recipient, I defined as mobility potential.  This characteristic is not solely defined in terms of actual, physical action, but rather through the very nature of the means by which knowledge is transmitted.

Take the book, for example.  Despite the ease with which its contents may be transported in the physical sense, when examined under the definition of information provided above, the book, in fact, possesses a low mobility potential.  Why?  Because the text, the informational message contained within, cannot be modified, in any great degree, through transmission.  If you and I both read copies of Moby Dick, there is little chance we will come to the end and read different endings.  The words on the page will remain the same today and tomorrow. This low mobility characteristic provided the book with both strength, in that the very low capacity of having the printed message of the book transform through transmission provided relative stability in the larger process of dispersing knowledge, and weakness, in that the informational content could not be modified unless the writer or publisher made modifications and printed an updated edition.  Limitations on modifications notwithstanding, the stability of printed knowledge greatly trumped all concerns as the immeasurable effect on the spread of knowledge books conferred paved a route towards modern power structures embodied by the rise of renaissance, then enlightenment, ideals.

When compared to the high mobility potential embodied in oral culture, it is no wonder scholars and elites preferred the use of low mobility constructs to buttress their growing power structures.  Oral constructs of knowledge tend to have a very high capacity to undergo modification through transmission.  While oral knowledge can be spread across distances comparable to the book, its progress can be sporadic and often the journey alters the informational content, sometimes to a great degree.  Folktales provide a good example to explore the idea of high mobility potential in oral knowledge.  Unlike the book, a folktale relies upon modification in order to find use outside of the locale from which it originates.  Oral transmitters of a folktale often altered pieces, or entire sections, of a folktale in order to tailor it to the situation or audience presented.  Recipients, in turn, re-transmit the folktale to others and engaged in their own modifications based, again, on the situation or audience presented.  Whereas the book finds strength in its printed word stability, the folktale conversely grows weaker under such stability, or stasis, as its message and informational content cease to be modified and find applicability with wider audiences.  Conversely, where the book would lose its value if it could be changed every time it's retransmitted, the folktale gains new life and takes on new forms as it is retold and modified over and over.

While every culture has its own cultural tradition in generating and spreading folktales, due to my familiarity with Russian history I would like to bring up the Skomorokhi from the era of Kievan Rus' and Muscovite Russia- roughly the span between 1000-1648- as an example of how high mobility potential can influence the development of culture.  Russell Zguta, in his article "Skomorokhi: The Russian Minstrel Entertainers", discusses the evolving role these minstrel's played in the development and spreading of Russian folktales, songs, early theatre, games, and the enrichment of the cyclical festivals/celebrations central to the agricultural workers world. Their impact on Russian culture was massive- emerging not from the elites, but rather the lowly ranks of the peasantry, the skomorokhi were able to fuse the high-minded literary style of heroic poetry, derived from elite patronized Gusliari (think court minstrels/entertainers), into the more common and popular folktales told by peasants.  As the skomorokhi traveled around the area of Novgorod, and later Muscovite Russia, they spread their amalgamation of tales and songs and inspired revivals/preservation of cultural traditions that had lain dormant. Freely mixing elements of one story into another, the skomorokhi were able to tailor their performances to the audience as well as stimulate the creation of new folktales or songs that integrated elements of high culture with the causes and concerns of regular people. It was because of their great supporting role in maintaining Slavic folk culture among the lower orders that the skomorokhi were eventually persecuted, as both the growing power of the Muscovite state and the presence of the Orthodox church worked to stamp out the vestiges of 'pagan' belief often associated with peasant traditions and celebrations.

It is interesting that a construct of low mobility, namely the proclamation "On the Righting of Morals and the Abolition of Superstition" of 1648 that banned skomorokhi activity, was issued to combat the influence of high mobility folktales and songs that often put into question issues of justice and morality then being enforced by secular and sacred authorities. Again, this comes back to the issue related to oral citations use on Wikipedia- certification of circulating knowledge. One reason Muscovite authorities felt threatened by wandering skomorokhi centered on the issue of asynchronicity between high mobility and low mobility knowledge constructs.  Going back to the example of the book, if I take a copy, place it in a time capsule and then dig it up fifty years later, the text will not change even if the 'knowledge' or 'opinion' stated within underwent significant revision over the course of the past fifty years. High Mobility constructs, like the folktales described above, are constantly changing through the process of transmission and circulation, meaning that they are more capable of being informed/transformed by the milieu of its temporal evocation. The conflict arises when the two forms of knowledge constructs attempt to operate in similar, or exact, spheres of activity. As Muscovite authorities attempted to enforce 'moral' behavioral norms, their edicts and proclamations found sharp criticism in the values espoused by folktales and songs. While the written edict conveyed power to literate functionaries (the Grand Prince/Tsar made the laws- not other upstarts or usurpers) it could not change its wording through transmission (to do so would have been a crime against the Grand Prince/Tsar himself) and so found itself at the mercy of interpretation through the prism of peasant mentalite, influenced directly by high mobility culture.

While authorities could always point to a document in question as the source of power, the interchange between oral and written culture proved that a more interdependent relationship existed. Daniel Field investigated such interdependence in his essay, 'The Year of Jubilee' (part of larger collection in Russia's Great Reforms, 1855-1881), describing the process involved in carrying out the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861. When laws regarding the emancipation of serfs in Russia were finally put together in February 1861, their announcement was delayed to coincide with the beginning of Lent. Why? The Tsar and his advisors knew full well how monumental edicts had a tendency to be 're-interpreted' by the peasant masses, who spread rumors and other ideas through their oral networks challenging the established notion of 'knowledge' the document in question contained. During Lent, peasants were to abstain from alcohol consumption in addition to observing fasting restrictions. Authorities hoped that would make the populace less restive and prone to 're-interpret' the emancipation edict that was lengthy, complicated and monumental in terms of reshaping the basic foundation for much of the relationship between society and state. In effect, the delay of announcing the emancipation edict demonstrated the influence peasant usage of high mobility oral networks possessed on the promulgation of low mobility constructs, such as laws. Because peasants could 're-interpret' the pronounced edict with surprising flexibility and speed, any printed document had to be handled with great care. The government could not hope to match the speed of constantly evolving 'knowledge' spread through high mobility constructs with an equal flurry of matching printed statements and counters to circulating rumors or beliefs- the very nature of the printed low mobility object prohibited this kind of response! Hence the use of more tried and true methods to back the printed word- force. In addition to delaying announcement for the beginning of Lent, the Tsar dispatched elements of over 80 military regiments across the country where the edict was to be delivered so as to bring quick support to local civil officials and put-down any peasant disturbances.

Asynchronicity between constructs of high and low mobility was, and continues to be, a defining feature in the interdependent relationship between both potentials prior to the rise of widespread near-instantaneous communicative networks. In areas where communication networks are of poor quality or nonexistent, asynchronous 'knowledge' gaps expressed in different mobility potential constructs can produce waves of reconfiguration, disruption or backlash, especially when the issuers of low mobility constructs wish to regulate the sphere of high mobility discourse. This was the problem largely encountered by the Imperial Russian government during its tenure of power. Yet when networks of increasing complexity arise and grant the capacity for more instantaneous communication, the asynchronicity 'gap' between high and low begins to dramatically shrink- a factor made apparent and amplified with the rise of the internet. This decrease in asynchronicity impacts, significantly, the established hierarchies of power behind low mobility constructs, for example the newspaper, and brings to the fore questions on the certification of knowledge established by said constructs. The 'knowledge' gap transforms into a 'credibility' gap. Hence the debate that once occurred in the journalism community over the role of 'citizen journalists' and the current debate surrounding the validity of oral citations on Wikipedia. Looking at the model of inspiration Wikipedia drew upon, that being the enlightenment era notion of the universal library, it becomes easier to see how the real debate on oral citations centers on the issue of Wikipedia acting as a transition point for the interchange between high and low mobility constructs.

Adrian Johns briefly surveys the quest for a 'Universal Library' in his work, Piracy: Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg To Gates. Idealists of the enlightenment period saw in the printing-press book a tangible way to preserve knowledge and facilitate progress as the intellectual riches of minds past could be made stable and accessible to all- to many this was a considerable upgrade from the often turbulent reliance upon word of mouth or sluggish pace of scribal reproduction. Yet not everyone saw in the printing revolution a sign of progress- Samuel Egerton Brydges, an independent printer who favored reproducing antiquarian texts, felt that 'Universal Libraries' would become "infinitely large reservoirs of triviality" as the sheer volume of works being produced did nothing but glut potential holdings with works divorced from 'genius'. He believed that, prior to the commercial age of printing, the 'popularity' of a text closely aligned with authorial merit- a relationship all but destroyed by the state of (then) modern printing. The quote of Brydges provided below speaks not only to his fears of unfettered publishing but also to the concerns expressed by Wikipedia specifically, on the issue of oral citations, and other pundits generally, on the contention that the digital age of information is bringing a 'post-idea' age to fruition:
"If the reverence and celebrity which in enlightened ages have attended 'Authorship' are destroyed, by giving equal preservation and the same place of distinction to whatever the Press vomits forth, who will forsake the inviting pleasures of youth, and the enjoyments which court the senses, for the solitary lamp, and the anxious and abstracted toils by which the capacity for the higher sorts of literacy composition, or success in the more difficult branches of science, is cherished and attained?"
It was one thing to produce knowledge, another to produce useful knowledge. This was both the promise and peril of attempting to build a 'Universal Library' and, by extension, a 'Universal Encyclopedia'. Defining knowledge in terms of what should be deemed 'useful' and 'certified' and what constituted 'large reservoirs of triviality' became the central issue at stake when attempting to produce a 'universal' compendium. Traveling closer to the modern period, another advocate of the 'Universal Library' concept, H.G. Wells, best expressed the potential benefit a stable, authoritative source of knowledge could bring when he stated that such a construct would become a "clearinghouse of misunderstandings". (Well's quote and insight provided by Joseph Reagle's Good Faith Collaboration) In both viewpoints we see a desire to avoid dilution of the authoritative nature of low mobility constructs through gatekeeping of what can be considered 'certified' knowledge. High mobility constructs, according to Brydges and Wells, have no place in encyclopedic efforts as their high degree of potential modification through transmission made them unsuitable for the desired effects of producing the compendium; to enable the 'capacity for the higher sorts of literacy composition' as a means of creating a 'clearinghouse of misunderstandings".

Wikipedia is both a continuation and radical reshaping of the enlightenment era notion of the 'Universal Encyclopedia' because it is a digital high mobility construct that, while completely capable of being modified through transmission, ultimately relies upon 'certified' low mobility constructs to establish its authoritative knowledge base. One of the central pillars of the Wikipedia effort that enshrine this high/low coexistence is reliance upon a 'neutral point of view' facilitated by use of 'verifiable' sources:
"The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth- whether readers can check that material in Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether editors think it is true. ...This policy applies to all material in the mainspace- articles, lists, sections of articles, and captions- without exception, and in particular to material about living persons." (Entry on Wikipedia: Verifiability, emphasis in the original and accessed 18 Aug 2011)
Two things immediately stand out, especially under the lens of mobility potential.  First, the separation of verifiability from truth and, second, the absolute insistence that material on the lived experience must be 'verified' though low mobility constructs, i.e. 'certified' knowledge that has been published. The first observation is a clear deviation from the original purpose envisioned for the 'universal encyclopedia', that being a source of truth that provided a guide to true genius while also eliminating misunderstandings. This is understandable as Wikipedia is a high mobility construct that constantly redefines the essence of truth as its 'knowledge' content undergoes modification through use and transmission. However, this creates a necessity to find some source of 'knowledge' credibility and provides the reasoning behind insisting on use of low mobility published material to verify the Wiki entries. By combining the high mobility nature of the Wiki construct with the 'veracity' of low mobility published sources in a digital communication network, Wikipedia takes on the form of a transition point between high mobility and low mobility. 'Transition Points' represent a new form of knowledge interaction and construction made possible by near-instantaneous communication networks in that they both speed the transmission cycle of low mobility sources and reduce the asynchronous effects historically generated when high mobility and low mobility constructs interacted.  

The second observation acts as a sort of demarcation of acceptable material, a filter point, whereby high mobility constructs are declared off limits in use of 'verifying' knowledge. In part this is tied to the implications of the first observation because to suggest that high mobility constructs can act as verifiers of knowledge would invalidate Wikipedia's claim to possess an authoritative source of knowledge and completely divorce the project from the enlightenment model that inspired its creation. By stating that published material is the only acceptable arbiter of the lived experience, Wikipedia in effect creates a temporal barrier that ensures high mobility constructs will not upset its current configuration as a 'transition point'. The real concern is that inclusion of oral citations would re-introduce asynchronicity effects in the interplay between high and low mobility constructs creating, once again, a 'knowledge' gap that calls into question the validity of authority Wikipedia desires to have effused through its content. Given these influences and imposed constraints on the operation of Wikipedia, the question now shifts to how the group backing the inclusion of oral citations have structured their argument.

In response to the question of when alternative methods of citation could be useful, the 'People are Knowledge' filmmakers propose three criteria. First, alternative citation methods are useful "when there is not a single printed source on a subject of lived reality." Second, "when there are some printed sources on a subject, but the sources are effectively lost, by being housed in libraries that are inaccessible to the general public and/or whose catalogue is not online." Finally, third, "when there are some accessible printed sources on a subject, but the sources are incomplete or misleading by way of being outdated or biased." (Criteria are presented at 9:16 in the film)

In seeking to create space for the use of alternative methods, like oral citations, the filmmakers of 'People are Knowledge' are challenging the standard of validation itself by attacking the 'filter' created to remove the influence of high mobility constructs. This line of argumentation would find good company in many claims made by Russian peasants regarding the implementation of tsarist edicts or laws, in that both groups are using reconfigurations of knowledge spurred by high mobility constructs to challenge the influence of more stable, less changing low mobility constructs. The logic used in 'People are Knowledge' turns the question of validity upon itself, in effect demonstrating the asynchronicity presented through rejection of oral citations. How can Wikipedia claim to be an 'authoritative' knowledge source if it is 'blind' to certain subjects of 'lived reality' or, worse, using 'validated' knowledge that is, in fact, biased? Yet, interestingly, the solution proposed by 'People are Knowledge' seeks to form the same compromise between high and low mobility constructs that Wikipedia currently facilitates.  While the oral nature of knowledge is indeed a high mobility construct, something that would be considered not subject to 'validity' under current guidelines, by making a low mobility recording of the oral knowledge and using that as the source cited for 'validation', the supporters behind 'People are Knowledge' are attempting to carve out an increased role for high mobility while also restricting the asynchronous effects produced by sourcing their 'validation' through low mobility constructs.  The goal is not to undermine Wikipedia as a 'transition point' but rather to expand the domain of knowledge under Wikipedia's 'transitional' authority. By laying the groundwork for the process of high/low interaction, future discourses of power can begin to take shape.

The debate over the functioning role of digital high mobility constructs acting as 'transition points' extends beyond Wikipedia. Although it operates in a manner quite different, Twitter produces similar reduction of asynchronicity when facilitating 'transition point' interaction between high and low mobility. Tweets have the capacity to be modified through their transmission, via the re-tweet, either through restructuring the message itself or adding commentary to existing sentiment. When containing links to essays on blogs or even Facebook photos, tweets reduce the asynchronous effects these low mobility constructs often encounter when interacting with high mobility constructs. You read an essay that is thought provoking and tweet about it. I see your tweet, read the essay and begin to think of my own take, or response, to the points presented. I can then create a low mobility response, like a blog post, and then tweet about that, linking it all back to the original essay read. Or I can produce my own high mobility tweet, containing my thoughts, and link back to the original essay read. Some view this 'transition point' function as, at least, superfluous to real knowledge creation or, at worst, a stifling of the entire creative process in the name of informational narcissism. This is the view taken by Neil Gabler in a New York Times opinion piece titled, "The Elusive Big Idea". Here is a quote from that piece:
"Even though there are sites and blogs dedicated to ideas, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, etc., the most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas. It is largely useless except insofar as it makes the possessor of the information feel, well, informed. Of course, one could argue that these sites are no different than conversation was for previous generations, and that conversation seldom generated big ideas either, and one would be right. 
BUT the analogy isn’t perfect. For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe."
According to Gabler, tweeting is much like "giving equal preservation and the same place of distinction to whatever the Press vomits forth" in that it dilutes the potential for big ideas to develop and divorces 'authorial merit' from popularity. While he recognizes the new role networks like Twitter provide, calling them 'information exchanges', Gabler fails to see any utility in their operation. His claim that 'tweets' or other high mobility constructs cannot serve as inspiration or fuel for new 'big ideas', once taken into consideration using a mobility potential framework, proves demonstrably false. If nothing else, this essay serves as a counter-example to the theme of Gabler's message. I discovered his opinion piece via twitter the same day it was published and began to immediately formulate his position into my own explanation on why Twitter is more than just an 'information exchange', even though that in of itself would be a wonderful venture. Twitter allows me to become familiar with a greater range of intellectual topics and produce quicker iterations of my own thought process and beliefs. Networks that act as 'transition points' will continue to push the boundaries on what constitute knowledge production and certification, leaving those who remain tied to protecting low mobility constructs as the sole means of establishing these activities increasingly in the past.

In conclusion, I would like to say that this brief exploration on mobility potentials is only the beginning of elaborating the complex interaction of information that occurs through use of near-instantaneous communication networks.  While the past is replete with examples of clashes between low and high mobility constructs, the modern period brings a curious mix of asynchronous effects generated in places with slow communication networks (the recent movements behind the continuing Arab Spring come to mind) but also new hybrid forms of 'transition points' that greatly reduce asynchronicity but create new questions over what is credible and certifiable, in terms of knowledge production and circulation. Although this essay used a binary distinction between mobility potentials, it should be noted that many artifacts or constructs contain a variety of features that bring them from low/high and high/low (and all points in-between), depending on the moment of use.  A cassette tape is one such artifact, a prime example of low mobility when just being played yet possessing the capacity to be 'modified' through re-recording in an outfitted tape deck. By taking a concept like information and focusing the scope of inquiry to 'can it be modified through transmission' allows a more in-depth explanation to the workings of discourse as elaborated by Foucault. It not only informs the present, as evidenced by the comments of people like Gabler who dismiss social networks as mere triviality without realizing their greater 'transitional' authority, but also the past, as noted above in interpreting the actions of peasant behavior in Imperial Russia. Viewing informational behavior through a mobility potential framework also promotes an understanding of how seemingly old or antiquated behaviors are, in fact, still very much alive today and integral to how we as people come to and interact with social media.

(Editors Note: A previous version of this post mistakenly attributed 'Good Faith Collaboration' to Jonathan Reagle.  The author is, in fact, Joseph Reagle- thanks to the commentator below who noted the error!)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Middle East Studies, The Arab Spring & 1989

Every couple of months I receive a print copy of Foreign Affairs and I try to pick a piece out of each issue to explore further.  This time I want to visit the short essay by F. Gregory Cause III, professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, titled "Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring".  Overall, I believe Cause makes valid claims as to why scholars of the Middle East failed to anticipate the overwhelming popular response known, now, as the Arab Spring.  His main point is that scholars questioned little of the seeming unwavering support for the regions undemocratic rulers, as the authoritarian regimes maintained power over the course of decades in the face of other democratic movements occurring in Africa and Europe, as well as the Iranian revolution and increasing secularization of Turkey.  Cause even cites his own mistaken belief of advocating support of the authoritarian regimes in a previous Foreign Affairs article, written in 2005, as he believed then that those rulers represented stability in a region that held vital importance to America's energy and foreign policy interests.  Now the recent upheavals and continuing conflicts in North Africa and the neighboring Middle East has thrown all previous assumptions and evaluations out the window.  Here is a quote from Cause:
Understanding what we missed and what we overestimated in our explanations of the stability of Arab authoritarianism -- and understanding why we did so -- is of more than just academic significance. Regional analysts must determine what changed in the forces that underpinned four decades of Arab regime stability and what new elements emerged to spark the current revolts. Doing so will allow U.S. policymakers to approach the Arab revolts more effectively by providing them insight into the factors that will drive postrevolutionary politics in the Arab world.
What immediately stuck me was the correlation between misconceptions of this event and the Eastern European separation from the Soviet Union in 1989- yet Cause does not make the link between the situation Middle Eastern scholars find themselves in today and the situation Soviet and East European scholars of yesterday faced when the Soviet Union dramatically collapsed in the span of two years.  It would be mistaken to say the two periods have perfect symmetry, but enough similarities exist to warrant examination.  Below, I want to consider the main points brought up by Cause and compare them with the experience of 1989 in Eastern Europe.  My goal is not to simply draw one-to-one correlations between the Arab Spring and 1989 (the two events are unique phenomena and products of their time), but rather to show how the movements were both alike and differentiated.  As a sort of caveat emptor, I should state up front that the following is an exploration engaging in generalizations that could all be brought under closer scrutiny in order to detect both the complexity and texture broad narrative attempts, like this, often conceal.

Let's begin with Cause identifying "what academia knew and did not know."  His first point deals with Middle East scholars inability to tie the regions assessed stability to the culture of the states examined.  While avoiding old tropes regarding Islam's supposed incompatibility with democracy, a welcome change from previous academic stances, scholars downplayed the role of Arab culture, as it was understood, because of the belief that authoritarian regimes possessed the political acumen to co-opt and contain expressions of dissent.  Even though evidence surfaced, from time to time, that Arab people were less than satisfied with their governing situation, many scholars failed to see the warning signs due to their belief in two pillars of authoritarian rule- "the military-security complex and state control over the economy."

Similar claims were made by pundits and scholars concerning the durability of Soviet rule over Eastern Europe in the pre-1989 era.  Their belief, too, was based on assumptions regarding the Soviet Union's predilection towards military invasions to prop up Communist party rule and the supposed power the command economy gave in quelling sources of discontent.  As the Western economies faced recession or very slow growth through much of the 70's, due largely to a sharp spike in OPEC pricing, the Eastern Bloc nations posted positive economic growth.  These assumptions, like the ones held by Middle East scholars above, were not without some merit.  Various Eastern European nations/movements engaged in outright revolt against Soviet power in the decades previous to 1989 and all were crushed or effectively silenced, at least (and perhaps only) in the eyes of the West.

We now know, through hindsight, that several sources of dissent and discontent were bubbling beneath the surface of Soviet society, particularly in Eastern Europe- although few Western observers at the time saw in these movements the potential to bring down the entire superstructure of Soviet rule.  Any outright attempt to oust the Communist party leadership resulted in military or security crackdowns, hence the movement in the late 70's and 80's towards building a separate 'civil society' that espoused a clear 'anti-politics' stance with regards to the ruling authorities.  This idea was perhaps best expressed by Vaclav Havel and his influential essay, 'Power of the Powerless'.  It was also the central theme of the 'Solidarity' movement- the goal in those movements and several others was not to challenge the Party directly, but to instead build towards a establishing a new space, outside of Soviet totalitarian control, where one could address the issues of day to day life.

The various movements against Soviet rule are highlighted wonderfully in Padraic Kenney's book, Carnival of Revolution.  One particular example, detailed by Kenney, was the 'Orange Alternative' in Poland that used street theatre and other tactics to bring absurdity to the agents of absolutist control.  In one of their most striking actions, the group put the word out for sympathetic youths to gather at a prescribed time in the city of Wroclaw and don red caps to become 'elves' for the holiday known as 'Children's Day'. (1 July)  These 'elves' went around sharing candy and singing children's songs, attempting to show in a non-threatening way that both the 'elves' and regular people could come together as a group and not be afraid.  Even as security agents arrested and hauled away various 'elves', the red-capped youth would shower their captors with kisses, continue to throw candy to the crowd and wave exuberantly from the confines of the police wagons.  Because this group pursued actions that looked and felt absurd, the use of overwhelming power to silence the various 'events' the Orange Alternative conducted was also shown to be absurd.  What does it say about a totalitarian state's hold on power if it worries about, and actively attempts to quell, the singing and candy-throwing merriment of a bunch of 'elves'?

The larger lesson to take away is that when people are stifled in state-dominated structures, be that in economic or cultural terms, they will create spaces outside and separate from officialy sanctioned relationships to build towards achieving the ideal they feel is currently denied.  David Ost, in his book Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics, states that one of the goals of the 'Anti-Political' movement was,
Belief that what is essential to a just order is not a benign government and good people in power, but rather a vital, active, aware, self-governing and creative society.  
Now, as I stated above, the events and actions of 1989 do not neatly correlate with the Arab Spring of 2011.  Indeed, one key difference highlighted by Cause in his article, with regards to the exercise of military force to keep authoritarian regimes in power, was that nations in which the bulk composition of the army matched the religious denomination of the people peacefully protesting (in Muslim religious belief there are two major denominations- the Shia and the Sunni) there tended to be less desire to use violence in quelling the movements.  This is why, Cause states, the Egyptian and Tunisian militaries largely refrained from using force to prop up the obviously unpopular Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes.  (He also adds that professionalism and detachment from the direct command of the authoritarian regime also played key roles- in effect, the Army possessed more room to maneuver, outside the whims of the ruling regimes, in delicate situations)  In other nations, where the military officers and rulers are of the same minority religious affiliation, such as Bahrain and Jordan, there is more outward support of the ruling regimes and willingness to utilize violence to demonstrate that support.  In places like Libya, where the institutionalization of the military has been defunct or intentionally handicapped, allegiance falls along fuzzy lines more suited to the calculus of hegemony than religious belief.  

Religion certainly played a role in the build-up and sustainment of the tumultuous events of 1989, but conflict between the peoples of Eastern Europe and the ruling Soviet authorities was, generally, not couched in terms of religious identity.  Of course, institutions like the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church played important roles and gave their supporters a concrete identity to fix their complaints against Soviet rule upon- Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland in 1979 being the most widely recognized example.  Yet, for many, the conflict over Soviet control touched on more than just religious issues- it encompassed all aspects of life.  I suspect that as the Arab Spring is brought under increased scrutiny by scholars and laypeople alike, there will be a more nuanced understanding of the complex identity issues at play between demonstrators and the agents of the regime.

Another contradiction missed by scholars and highlighted by Cause was the enduring consequences of taking on 'Western' modernization policies for authoritarian regimes in non-oil producing states.  Here is a quote:
Many Middle East scholars recognized that the neoliberal economic programs were causing political problems for Arab governments, but few foresaw their regime-shaking consequences. Academics overestimated both the ameliorating effect of the economic growth introduced by the reforms and the political clout of those who were benefiting from such policies. As a result, they underestimated the popular revulsion to the corruption and crony privatization that accompanied the reforms.
For the nations of the Eastern Bloc pursuit of more liberal 'western' economic policies was taboo, evidenced by the wholesale rejection of 'different paths to Socialism' by Soviet authorities.  Western money flows funneled during the detente period of the 70's into Eastern Europe were spent on ill-thought out projects or improvements designed only to enhance the life of the apparatchiks.  While this would seem, on face, to be an almost reverse 'mirror-image' from the Arab Spring experience, looking closer one can detect the same underlying cause for angst in both examples; economic benefits that were supposed to be  distributed among society were, instead, remaining pooled at the top ranks of the bureaucracy and its favored clients.  As Cause noted, those Arab states with large reserves of oil revenues were able to 'buy off' the anger of their people by periodically infusing large amounts of cash into programs and projects meant to shore up support for the 'social contract' held between ruler and ruled.  In less endowed Arab states, the resentment over the pace and distribution of economic benefits conferred by the increasing acceptance, at top policy levels, of western liberal economic ideas led to widespread dissatisfaction.

In the 70's and 80's, Soviet subsidies of oil and natural gas literally fueled the Eastern Bloc's economic growth, although this policy, meant to cull support for the larger Soviet system, ended up shielding them from the more disruptive effects then wrecking havoc on much of the Western economic world. (Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries do note some alternative interpretations of the Soviet economic relationship to the Eastern Bloc nations in their excellent survey work, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change.  The alternate viewpoints hinge on a more narrowly focused economic view of the 'subsidies' relationship, noting that amounts given both ways do not necessarily correlate to hegemonic considerations)  While the various nations in the Eastern Bloc continued on their 'incentivized' path towards increased production in heavy industry, they did so at the expense of commercial goods production.  Combined with a deceasing ability to export to the West (inferiority of goods and a sharp decline in demand through the 70's and early 80's, not to mention extremely corrupt and inefficient export controls), the result was stagnating growth rates that increasingly proved incapable of coping with the inflationary pressure thereto hidden from the economy.  When the various nations moved to introduce measures intended to correct the asymmetry, such as raising the price of heating oil or foodstuffs, often the people expressed extreme dissatisfaction by engaging in protests or full-scale revolts.  Once Gorbachev made it known that the Soviet Army would not 'step in' to bolster the support of the Communist party in economically beleaguered satellite nations, the crises of leadership only exacerbated at the top levels throughout much of Eastern Europe.     

The final point Cause makes in his essay is how the force of pan-Arabism was also misunderstood by Middle East scholars:
"...many of us assumed that the cross-border appeal of Arab identity had waned in recent years, especially following the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. Egypt and Jordan had signed treaties with Israel, and the Palestinians and Syria had engaged in direct negotiations with Israel, breaking a cardinal taboo of pan- Arabism. U.S.-led wars against Iraq in 1990-91 and beginning in 2003 excited opposition in the Arab world but did not destabilize the governments that cooperated with the U.S. military plans -- a sign of waning pan-Arabism as much as government immunity to popular sentiment. It seemed that Arab states had become strong enough (with some exceptions, such as Lebanon and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq) to fend off ideological pressures from across their borders. Most Middle East scholars believed that pan-Arabism had gone dormant."
But it hadn't.  Part of the misconception stemmed from the belief that pan-Arabism was synonymous to the motivations and plans expressed by Nasser in the 1950's, that being the reshaping of the Arab geo-political landscape into one super-Arab nation.  Scholars believed that such a movement had lost significant steam, in part due to the reasons explained above.  Yet the Arab Spring demonstrated that, in some instances, a collective sense of identity does exist among Arabs across the Middle East.  Cause says that future U.S. policy makers will not be able to look at Arab nations on a case-by-case basis without first considering the effects shared identity present- case in point, it will be more difficult now to explain support for the Egyptian Revolts while accepting Bahraini crackdowns on democracy protests.

Here is where the experiences of the Arab Spring and 1989 sharply diverge.  The Eastern European nation-states of the 'Warsaw Pact' shared very little in the way of collective history or culture.  While it is true that 1989 contained a sort of 'domino effect', in that the ease of travel restrictions in Hungary led to relaxed mesures in East Germany and the eventual teardown of the Berlin Wall, etc... this was more in response to the loosening (and then outright collapse) of Soviet control and less to the 'culturally shared tradition' of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.  Of course, people were inspired by the actions taken in other Soviet satellite states- but my larger point is that the 'cultural' force, if you can call it that, behind the events of 1989 was the casting off of Soviet/Communistic identities and influence in favor of a regeneration of the distinct, and for some historic, sense of the self and the local free from outside control.  Michael Bernhard explains in his book, The Origins of Democratization in Poland, that the nations of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany all pursued different paths towards democratization during the 70's and 80's.  Communist reformers actually helped pave the way in Hungary, with the key factor there being a re-evaluation of the events of 1956.  East Germany, while having few disturbances, constantly received influence from West Germany, whose rapid economic expansion put the more depressed East in stark contrast.  Czechoslovakia possessed a vibrant dissident movement, exemplified by Charter 77, yet ultimately the incredible groundswell of support in the form of mass protests paved the way towards a new conception of the 'civil society'.  Poland, perhaps the most restive of Soviet satellites, is best known for its 'Solidarity' movement, represented to the West by the figure of Lech Walesa, and their critique of Communist rule often came in the form of workers strikes.  These explanations are just cursory differentiations of movements that were equally diverse and complex, but the main point is that, save for a discreet notion of 'European' identity, the now independent nation-states of Eastern Europe did not (and still don't) share the same kind of broad, homogenizing ideal like that expressed in the term pan-Arabism.

Clearly the two events shared more than just a revolutionary spirit, but there are also points of divergence.  The impacts of 1989 are still being felt across Eastern Europe, just as the implications and changes brought about the recent Arab Spring and ongoing revolts across the Middle East will be felt for decades to come.  Cause concedes at the end of his essay the limited power policy makers and scholars alike must come to terms with when dealing with a region as diverse and complex as the Middle East.  The same could have been said for Eastern Europe in the 1990's- yet the regions central role underpinning geo-political relationships between the East and the West guaranteed that its fate would not be left to chance.  I suspect the same is true for the Middle East, as the region combines both security and energy interests greatly pursued by the United States and much of the West.  The question now is whether or not new assumptions made from the early results of the Arab Spring will produce additional flawed insight and policy planning, like that analyzed by Cause above, or if it will inspire bouts of wisdom backed by humility.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Historical Trends & 'Visualizing Communities'

Visualizing Communities, a recent post by Jonathan Stray on his blog of the same name, is an excellent analysis on the possibility to discern several communities, or identities, through visualizations based upon digital traces of activity. Looking at visualizations of social networks (a Facebook friend map and the connections between the 'visualization community' on Twitter), co-consumption (looking at purchasing networks), communication networks (email send/receive analysis),web structure (classifying internet content and its relational linking structure), and location-based networks (think FourSquare) Stray ultimately asks what does all this networked and community based activity have to say about how we have traditionally defined a community or assigned identity? He comes to the following conclusion:
The only definition of “community” that makes any sense to me is “a group of people who think or act collectively.” This is the central theme of these visualizations. People don’t act truly independently, randomly spreading themselves out across geography and belief and behavior. Our lives are clustered along many disparate dimensions, which is just another way of saying that humans are social creatures. There must be as many different ways to visualize communities as there are types of human action.
What really interests me in this post is that I see it in the larger historical tradition of attempting to give shape and define what constitutes the self and the exchanges we engage in among diverse spheres of activity. It touches upon a topic that I have been investigating myself through research on Oregon Old Believers, and encounter frequently in my study on Russian peasants in the nineteenth century. While Stray's examination into community visualization focuses on the near-present, the investigation into what constitutes the formation of communities, and the identity shaping forces they exude, is one that governments and those in power have pursued since antiquity. In the past three centuries, with the rise of liberalistic ideas in governance and economy, the quest to define the individual took on accelerated importance as increased sophistication in both data collection and surveillance techniques made available to the powerful the potential to engage in methods of control (or, to put it another way, the exercise of hegemony) previously unavailable to the rulers of the medieval era.

Suddenly, governments realized the benefits more detailed knowledge of the population could provide. This is not to say that questions of population did not come up before, as governments surely endeavored to collect taxes or define hierarchies of power through constructs of nobility or rule by consent, only that in the modern period, in conjunction with the rise of rational scientific viewpoints, accumulating knowledge of a population became far more feasible and yielded far more information that could be used to further the interests of those in authority or seeking to expand the domain of power. Michel Foucault famously investigated this phenomena in both expansion and definition of medical and judicial power (The Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish) and the recent publication of his lectures at the Colleges de France, in particular the 1974-75 'Abnormal', 1977-78 'Security, Territory, Population' and 1978-79 'Birth of Biopolitics' lectures, provides a more in-depth look at the increased utility governments found in collecting data and defining the various communities under their purview.

While Foucault's analysis is thought provoking, in terms of its scope and subject, his evidence is ultimately drawn from the ideological and literary tradition of Western Europe. What I would like to attempt to explain below is how attempts to define 'community' and 'population', the same process noted by Stray in his post, were not only central themes for the absolutist and multi-ethnic empires of Austria (later, Austria-Hungary) and Russia but also the means by which radical shifts in their polices regarding assimilation and definition of what constitutes a citizen came to evolve over the course of the nineteenth century. The issues raised by Foucault in his monographs and printed lectures demonstrate how debates over the scope and implementation of liberal ideas in economy and governance reshaped Western European powers, such as France or Britain. Questions and concerns over population encountered in the West certainly could be applied to multi-ethnic lands of Eastern Europe and Russia, but they could not be done so exactly. As new methods of governance related to knowledge of the population emerged out of Western Europe, rulers in the Hapsburg and Romanov realms took notice. Nationalism (a movement tied to liberal ideology) was proving to be a potent force, and the absolutist empires of the eastern portion of Europe spent the duration of the nineteenth century attempting to craft solutions to the 'national identity question' that would preserve their power while satisfying increased demands for individual rights as advocated by liberalistic ideals.

Esther Kingston-Mann addresses this question specifically in the Russian historical context in her work, In Search of the True West. Looking at how Imperial Russian intellectuals received, and then debated, the power, potency and applicability of liberal economic doctrine believed to be the driving force behind, then perceived, British superiority in the great power system, Kingston-Mann demonstrates that Western liberal ideals were not accepted carte blanche but instead underwent a reconfiguration that endorsed some aspects of the liberal program while maintaining traditional forms of absolutist control. These ideas, in turn, spread from Russia back to the West where they left 'analog traces' of influence in letters and discussions.  Central to the Russian experience was the question of the serf population and the merits of private land ownership. The first half of the nineteenth century saw vigorous debates as to the role the peasant commune could or should play in the reshaping of the perceived 'backwardness' of the Russian economy. Essentially, the debate on how to build the power of the Russian Imperial state hinged on perceptions of the serf 'population'. Who were these people? What types of crops or agricultural methods should be utilized to increase productivity? Should peasants have ownership of the land they work? Would that destroy the Russian system and thus be ruinous for the state? Issues of the 'community' were especially prevalent in the thoughts of several generations of policy makers in Imperial Russia.

To come at the issue of community from another angle, questions over population were of a central concern to the multi-ethnic empires of the Hapsburgs and Romanovs as they attempted to conceive of a 'national unifying myth' that could incorporate their disparate peoples into an identity based on civic virtues instead of ethnic qualifications. (Much of this argument I borrow from Laura Engelstein and her collection of essays, Slavophile Empire: Imperial Russia's Illiberal Path) One tool used to craft this national myth was the census. A census served a dual purpose; it not only attempted to give an accurate count of people living in an area but it also used its question based identity sorting matrix to enforce normative ideals. In the Russian example, the only empire-wide census attempt was carried out in 1897 and the debates surrounding the results provides some interesting clues as to how Imperial bureaucrats attempted to define 'community'. Juliette Cadiot, in her article on the 1897 census 'Searching for Nationality', states that, for the Tsarist government, nationalism was weakly defined and the census results exposed deep-seated uncertainties with how to deal with multi-ethnic people in the quest to create a national ideal that, increasingly, became tied to emulation of the Russian ethnic ideal.

The census was primarily concerned with gathering data on language use, estate classification and religious identification as these were considered the defining characteristics that could measure the sense of 'identity' among the far-flung members of the Russian lands. (They also asked questions on physical and mental handicaps, economics, education, among others)  150,000 census takers embarked to survey a population of 129 million. The results, immediately, demonstrated flaws in the Imperial approach. Sorting the population according to estate, a hallmark of pre-modern Russian bureaucratic organization, no longer proved granular enough to define the increasingly diverse aspects of population then coming into the gaze of governmental authority. Members of the Ust' Olensk community in Siberia claimed they were 'peasants' in response to the language question, hoping to clearly link the expectation of the espoused estate (peasant) to the obviously preferred ethnicity (in this case Russian, instead of the more accurate Iakut). Imperial statisticians themselves believed the correct method to determine the nationality of a subject questioned was to compare their answers on language and estate, yet the sum of these qualifiers, as proved by the Ust' Olensk above, was not a guarantor on veracity.

Cadiot notes that as this deficiency became more readily apparent Tsarist authorities began to move away from viewing estate as a qualifier of Imperial identity, instead preferring ethnic classifications that were considered differentiated from the process of assimilation.  Knowledge of the population prompted a definitive shift in Imperial policy towards  pro-Russian assimilationist tactics (the embracing of Russification and increased preference towards ethnic Russian subjects) and ultimately cemented conceptions of who belonged in the Imperial community and who could only aspire to similarity, a line drawn sharply according to perceived ethnic definitions. The 1897 census debate over community crystalized the split between the perviously pursued goal of an imperial identity based on civic qualifiers to one that defined imperial identity in ethnic terms. (These debates, in turn, would have significant impact on the later formulation of Bolshevik 'nationality' policy in the 20's and 30's- but that's a topic for later examination)

When discussing communication networks, Jonathan Stray noted a similar phenomena in his post that speaks directly to the concerns of Imperial statisticians, noted above:
There’s often a difference between what people say and what they do. Looking at social network connections is a little like asking someone who their friends are — relevant, but subject to little white lies, perceptual biases, the limitations of memory, and complicated personal judgements.
Issues of mixed allegiances made apparent by social connections came to the fore in the historical/cultural analysis of a statue unveiled in 1879 and located in the presently Czech town of Buděĵovice (100 km south of Prague and in Bohemia- the statue's appearance occurred during Austro-Hungarian rule).  Imperial Royal Shipmaster Lanna, the man depicted in statue form, was at first 'culturally' claimed by the German speaking authorities from its dedication until the break-up of Austria-Hungary in 1918, at the conclusion of the First World War.  With the rise of a Czech nation-state, interpretation of Lanna's life underwent historical revision as the new cultural masters of Buděĵovice sought to emphasize the Czech, rather than German, background of the statue's subject. During communist rule the statue was removed, and its return in 1989 indicated that Lanna was firmly entrenched in the cultural legacy of the Czech people.

Jeremy King, who contributed the chapter on the Lanna statue as part of the larger collection of essays found in Staging the Past: The Politics of Commemoration in Hapsburg Central Europe, 1848 to Present, argues that it was the weak-national ties Lanna cultivated during his life through membership to both German and Czech culturally oriented clubs, as well as participation in the larger Hapsburg state organizations (his title was only one of many he could assume, yet i.r. Shipmaster carried connections to the larger Hapsburg state rather than just local or ethnic traditions), that allowed future authorities to lay claim to his legacy as part of the larger 'historical' narrative of German or Czech origin, depending on who was re-telling his life. Because he did not endorse one particular cultural legacy over another, as opposed to other figures from Lanna's time who were more decidedly pro-German or pro-Czech, his life and deeds proved easy to shape to different nationalist needs, according to how they viewed Lanna's social connections. It is interesting to note that while the statue itself did not change, save for small bits of erosion, the interpretation of the depicted man's life altered significantly as various communities sought to define themselves through this stone proxy. The mere fact that i.r. Shipmaster Lanna could not easily be categorized in one cultural legacy made him a far more enduring figure for the constantly changing sense of self and community that occurred (and still occurs today) over the course of the 19th-20th centuries.

Again, Stray makes this point early on in his post, stating:
"Real people don’t move in homogeneous herds, nor can any one person be neatly assigned to a single category. Someone might view themselves simultaneously as the inhabitant of a town, a new parent, and a leader in the amateur astronomy community. Now multiply this by a million, and imagine trying to describe the overlapping patchwork of beliefs and allegiances."
This was the headache both Romanov and Hapsburg rulers faced when attempting to 'define' and 'classify' their diverse populations.  Crafting a civic identity that reinforced imperial norms proved to be an incompatible venture, precisely because in both empires the essential characteristic defining a citizen came to be viewed in strict ethnic terms instead of a civic notion that would have allowed the transition from subject to citizen for non-homogenous populations. This shift, from civic to ethnic definitions of 'citizen' that occurred over the course of the nineteenth century, typified the autocratic regimes attempt to reconfigure the modes and models of western liberal ideals into forms acceptable for the illiberal tendencies of both the Romanovs and Hapsburgs. Yet the key to this shift was the emergence of 'population' questions centered on the perceived identity of citizen and subject alike.

I could go on an on about the historical trends associated with mapping communities or perception of networks used to generate and certify knowledge on, or for use by, a community. Two ready examples come to mind, the first being Philip J. Deloria's Indians in Unexpected Places and the second being Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 by Kapil Raj. Deloria looks at how, among other things, Native Americans were continually reevaluated by the evolution of language on their movement and violence potential (use of terms like outbreak, or massacre) which eventually led them to become an invisible force at the end of the nineteenth century that could hope for, at best, similarity with, but not assimilation into, the larger American culture. Raj looks at how circulation of medicinal ideas between European agents in South Asia and the home countries achieved different levels of 'certification' based largely on the networks used to accrue and cull indigenous knowledge on helpful plants- if the collected knowledge was codified in Latin, for example, it had a much larger chance of being circulated among learned communities in Europe, even if competing texts, written in the vernacular or being perceived to be the product 'inferior' native sources, contained far more accurate and applicable knowledge. Visualizing communities existed in the seventeenth century and this perception of reality possessed a powerful influence on scientific development and defining cultural norms.

However, as Stray demonstrates clearly in his post, modern day computing power and the capacity to harness peer-production for sorting and tagging large data sets has the potential to unlock deeper understanding of communities, both contemporary and historical. I have written on ideas to take documents related to Russian peasant life (disturbance reports, petitions, newspapers and proclamations, the Imperial postal delivery system) and parse the larger meta-data in order to produce a map with robust search and filter settings that both professional and layperson alike could use to learn more about Russian peasant life. One key component to this 'mapping' would be the ability to see peasant behavior develop and respond over time- the implementation of the 'time slider' Stray says every network analysis should contain- so that issues such as collective defense among communities, marriage patterns, dispersion of rumors, etc… could begin to be connected to larger themes, like peasant use of markets and goods traded or the spread of official edicts or disease. While journalists are, understandably, looking for a way to better parse the increasing size and availability of 'data dumps', Historians should also be lending their considerable expertise of past societies towards building a better understanding of networked behavior through the integration and examination of historical 'data dumps', like those collected documents that exist depicting Russian peasant life and behavior. Far from being a study of obsolete networks, empirical historical analysis can provide clues as to how traditional networks influenced, and continue to influence, the transmission of knowledge.

There is already some exciting modern research that hints at the role more traditional networks of kinship or reciprocity continue to play in shaping networked behavior and reconfiguring knowledge at the local level. Xiaolin Zhuo, Barry Wellman and Justine Yu, performing a preliminary dissection of the recent Egyptian Revolt, found that 'informal networks' were still vital to social movements- a point that should be obvious, yet often escapes many present day commentators on the Revolt and the Arab Spring in general. Here is a quote from their findings, presented in Peace Magazine and titled, "Egypt: The First Internet Revolt?":
"Informal networks of friends and relatives have also been important in initializing and sustaining social movements. One survey reports that word of mouth from family and friends was widely used (by 72% of Egyptians) to get information about “the events of January 25,” with only television (97%) being used more widely. The importance of mobile phones in Egyptian life is seen with SMS (texting) being the third most widely relied on for information (28%). Internet sources were less widely used: Facebook (15%), internet news sites (13%), email (2%), and Twitter (1%). Moreover, the social media percentages may be high due to disproportionate sampling. 
But, this doesn’t mean that Friedman was right in scoffing at the internet. Once we get past either/or thinking, we find that social media has expanded the traditional word of mouth to inform a range of people broader than the kinship and friendship networks."
Essentially, social media amplified both the range and speed at which information, often generated through traditional networks and reconfigured in those networks as well, could travel not only through established communities but also 'bridge' to larger or more diffuse communities traditional networks support but often cannot influence. A recent anecdote that lends support to the findings above is the story of Jaborandy Yande, a 27 year-old member of the Tupinambá de Olivença tribe located in northeast Brazil. Jaborandy travels around to the other tribes in the northeast in order to teach the local peoples how to use digital tools so that they can coordinate and project their voice on a broader stage. Digital tools are not meant to replace the traditional methods, only augment their capabilities and improve their efficiency in terms of circulation and reconfiguration.  Jaborandy labels the work he engages in as a 'digital arc':
There is no contradiction in wanting to continue native traditions and using Web 2.0 logic. “For me, it’s a digital arc,” says Jaborandy serenely. “I’m contributing equally to my community this way as if I were hunting.” 
Blogging, chatting, sending e-mails, and putting videos on Youtube – it’s revolutionary for the indigenous people who live in remote villages and never make it “to the city” to sell their goods. Although the “ancients” seem to be adapting well despite viewing the technology under their traditional lens. “They dictate messages for us to write into e-mails,” said Jaborandy smiling.
The example of Jaborandy brings me back to the initial observation, brought up by Stray, on how to define a community: "The only definition of “community” that makes any sense to me is “a group of people who think or act collectively.”  What I have tried to show above is that elaboration/definition of what constitutes a community, and the visualizations drawn from these elaborations, is part of a larger historical trend that played out in different manners across both Western Europe and the multi-ethnic lands of Eastern Europe and Russia.  Stray ends his post with the following:
"In the most general sense, I am concerned with community visualization because I am concerned with representation. That is why I want these maps of the masses to be available to all. It is vital to represent the public to itself, so mapping how people are already acting together, out there in the world, seems like a critical activity for society. It is especially critical because we can expect that governments and corporations will expend huge sums pursuing this mapping for their own ends; in these maps there is the power to influence, and to divide or unite, and I don’t think we want that entirely in private hands. But there is also the power to understand who we, collectively, are. It’s easy to toss around labels like “left” and “right” or “Hispanic” or “drug user” but who are these people, actually, and what other identities do they have? And who are we not thinking of at all?" (Emphasis mine)
Stray is correct stating that the use of maps and defining communities have enormous power potentials, yet the effects of this quest by government and corporations is not a new process. Like many aspects of digital culture and the reshaping of knowledge digital means bring to the meek and powerful alike, the phenomena observed is not entirely novel- it is only the next step in an already storied history of defining 'community'.