THE BLOG
11/07/2011 20:03 BST | Updated 10/09/2011 06:12 BST

The two Types of Twitter

So is that it? Is it the return of the end of history? Has the Arab Spring proved that new social media will blow the lid on closed political systems? Are Twitter and Facebook, as Hilary Clinton's advisor has labelled them, "The Che Guevara of the 21st Century", only with bigger IPOs?

So is that it? Is it the return of the end of history? Has the Arab Spring proved that new social media will blow the lid on closed political systems? Are Twitter and Facebook, as Hilary Clinton's advisor has labelled them, "The Che Guevara of the 21st Century", only with bigger IPOs?

Or is the story more complex? Are there in fact two different types of twitter out there - one of them online, 140 characters and a hash tag, recently popularised by the Pope, the other an uncelebrated thing that birds do? And is it the second that makes a revolution?

A group called Project Catalyst looked at what creates major change in nature, the stuff that underlines large scale and rapid shifts in group behaviour. They looked at a range of species, from birds to fish, and they made a surprising discovery. Across all species, there was a common threshold at which mass behavioural change happened. Not 4.9 %, not 5.1%, but 5%. Across species, when 5% moved, the rest moved.

There were two things that underpinned this ability to change direction rapidly. The first was difference. One member of the group, a cognitive outlier, was able to see something differently, from prey ahead to land or warmer air currents. The second was trust. There was enough connectivity within the group for the initial message to be rapidly accepted and passed on, giving the group the chance to move collectively before the opportunity had gone.

So how does the online version of nature's prototype twitter stack up? Does it deliver the value from difference and trust that the twittering of birds gives them as the basis of their agility?

On each count there turns out to be a problem. On difference, Twitter is a machine that does one thing very well, micro-segmenting. We choose exactly who we follow. Then they echo back to us our own world views. Real time. Round the clock. In small enough bites for us to incorporate reading it into our routine. The risk is that this glorious project of democratising the media, freeing us from the tyranny of the columnists that challenge us, ends up giving us a machine to confirm our biases. It's the cognitively undisruptive technology.

How about trust? The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer wrote that "stories exist in a vacuum", they satisfy a societal yearning for the contents of the narrative. Amina Arraf's "Gay Girl in Damascus" blog gave us in microcosm what we wanted the Syrian uprising to be about, minority rights, freedom of expression, the overthrow of the oppressor. Amina, witnessed by multiple online sources getting bundled into a van by Syrian security forces, turned out to be Tom McMaster, an Edinburgh based 40 year old American with a beard, someone else's Facebook photo and a predeliction for cross-blogging. Tom/Amina did not violate our trust. Trust did not come into it. The medium-- a series of anonymous, consequenceless, virtual exchanges-- did not require or allow trust to develop. What Tom/Amina did, perhaps more damaging, was to tear at the fabric of the narrative we looked for to make sense of the Syrian uprising.

So what did make the revolution work on the streets of Egypt? The answer may be it took both the virtual and the real. Three things combined to remove Hosni Mubarak from power. The first was a dissonant message. Rise up. There is the emerging possibility of a new political order. The second was acceptance and dissemination of that message, underpinned by trust within families, across neighbourhoods and inside campuses, trust that people would not just participate in the uprising, but be there to protect each other on the night and in the aftermath of the expression of dissent. The third was the technological capacity to inform and coordinate these diverse groups. Montesquieu defines the end of a regime as the moment where it questions, for the first time, its own legitimacy. What social media enabled was the virtual fusion of multiple real groups into a collective whole with the power to challenge the state.

Leo Johnson is a Visiting Fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise & Environment at Oxford, and a Partner in PwC's Sustainability & Climate Change team. He writes this in a personal capacity.