Fall Of The Berlin Wall

Massive outbreaks of cooperation precipitated the collapse of communism. In city after city, huge crowds assembled in nonviolent street demonstrations, despite decades of well-founded fear of political assembly. Although common sense leads to the conclusion that unanimity of opinion among the demonstrators explained the change of behavior, Natalie Glance and Bernardo Huberman, Xerox PARC researchers who have studied the dynamics of social systems, noted that a diversity of cooperation thresholds among the individuals can tip a crowd into a sudden epidemic of cooperation. Glance and Huberman pointed out that a minority of extremists can choose to act first, and if the conditions are right, their actions can trigger actions by others who needed to see somebody make the first move before acting themselves—at which point the bandwagon-jumpers follow the early adopters who followed the first actors:

Those transitions can trigger a cascade of further cooperation until the whole group is cooperating.

The events that led to the mass protests in Leipzig and Berlin and to the subsequent downfall of the East German government in November 1989 vividly illustrate the impact of such diversity on the resolution of social dilemmas…. The citizens of Leipzig who desired a change of government faced a dilemma. They could stay home in safety or demonstrate against the government and risk arrest—knowing that as the number of demonstrators rose, the risk declined and the potential for overthrowing the regime increased.

A conservative person would demonstrate against the government only if thousands were already committed; a revolutionary might join at the slightest sign of unrest. That variation in threshold is one form of diversity. People also differed in their estimates of the duration of a demonstration as well as in the amount of risk they were willing to take. Bernhardt Posch and Martin Abram, two sociologists from Erlangen University who studied the Leipzig demonstrations, claim that the diversity in thresholds was important in triggering mass demonstrations.

Smart mobs might also involve yet-unknown properties deriving from the dynamics of situations, not the heads of actors. Goffman’s Interaction Order, the social sphere in which complex verbal and nonverbal communications are exchanged among individuals in real time, is precisely where individuals actions can influence the action thresholds of crowds. Mobile media that can augment the informal, mostly unconscious information exchanges that take place within the Interaction Order, or affect the size or location of the audience for these exchanges, have the potential to change the threshold for collective action.

Smart Mobs fragments

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