As I mentioned the other day, the Shirky/Doctorow thesis is that the internet in general and social media in particular tend to generate political freedom; the Evgeny Morozov thesis is that those media tend to enable governmental surveillance and control of protestors and dissidents.

My question is: why are we so determined to speak in these essentialist terms? Maybe the most significant change in my thinking over the past twenty years is a deepening suspicion of generalizations. “To Generalize is to be an Idiot,” wrote William Blake; “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” The internet is new; social media are even newer; both are vastly dispersed throughout the global social order. Moreover, the internet is not just one thing, it’s ten million things; and different social media have different purposes, different architectures, different sets of users.

So when Clay Shirky says, “social media . . . helps [sic] angry people coordinate their actions,” I don’t know how we would even figure out whether a statement that broad is true. Which social media? Which actions? In which societies? Presumably when people connect with each other they won’t always agree, so how do we know that some social media, anyway, don’t exacerbate conflicts? Maybe some people in some societies would coordinate better if they met face to face. Maybe, though there are certainly dangers in meeting face to face, there may be just as many dangers in coordinating via social media, depending on how careful the users are and how technologically sophisticated the oppressors are.

Statements as broad as Shirky’s are close to useless. Here’s a post that shows how fruitless and abstract such debates can be, even when they start by focusing on a single country’s situation — the impulse to generalize is just too strong.

The only way to make any progress in thinking about these matters is to “Particularize” and to keep particularizing. So maybe we should start by asking questions along these lines: What social media played a role in the recent political upheavals in Tunisia, and what role did they play? How many Tunisians use social media, which ones do they use, and how do they use them? How many Egyptians were aware of the Tunisian situation, and how did they become aware? How did their media present the Tunisian situation to them? What media have they relied on, if any, in the days since January 25th? Is there even one Egyptian answer to these questions, or do we need to distinguish between Cairo and Alexandria, between the cities and the outlying areas — and among various social classes? Even these questions are broad, but they stand a chance of getting us somewhere.


  1. Why do they speak so?

    Essentialism to essentialism . . . that's how they earn their keep.

    On the other hand, in another domain, any engineer worth his salt knows to divide a problem into soluble pieces.

    So I guess particularization is quite general.

  2. Great discernment, Alan! I believe the tendency to generalization in many organizations (cultures?) is now so strong that the odd particularizer who dares to ask these probing questions is likely to be marginalized as a troublemaker or curmudgeon. I'm not very active in online conversations but I'm afraid the tendency is not unique to the Internet or social media.

  3. Well-said PEG.

    Yes, there's always a danger of getting "lost in the weeds".

    To continue on my one-trick pony . . . technical types consider that move across levels of granularity a discipline of Systems Engineering.

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