From how we date to what we buy, social networking has already profoundly redefined how we live our lives. Business practices—think eBay and Craigslist (tools for empowering individuals to exchange goods and services online)—are among the most dramatic examples of changing how we do what we do each day. In the United States, during the 2008 presidential election, the Barack Obama campaign mobilised social networking in revolutionary ways to garner popular support and raise money. The impact of social networking will not end with business and politics. National security is next.
It is past time that good governments get serious about how they are going to harness online social networking tools to protect our freedom, security, and prosperity. Like addressing any other national security challenge governments need a theory, a strategy, and a doctrine of tools and techniques to do the job right.
Securing a dominating position in social networking is like taking the high ground in a land battle. The trick is to define the electronic high ground. Social networking guru, Clay Shirky, helped do this in the seminal book Here Comes Everybody. At the heart of his book is an insight derived from power law, a special mathematical relationship between two kinds of entities—the frequency of an event and the size or magnitude of the event. A power-law curve shows what happens when the frequency of an event decreases at a faster rate than the magnitude of the event increases. A power-law distribution graph looks like the steep side of a valley or half of the letter 'U'. There are a few data points high on the vertical axis (magnitude) and then a plummeting slope—and a long tail along the horizontal axis (frequency). A common example expressing this relationship might be this: '20% of the people do 80% of the work' (or '20% of the customers account for 80% of the sales'). In a power-distribution curve a few people dominate. Most online social networks follow the power-law distribution.
On one end of the curve a very few participants (of the total members of the network) account for most of the activity—such as posting information and commenting on it. Essentially, a few participants are in broadcast mode—potentially influencing, educating, or directing the rest of the network.
The right side of the power curve is a place for a tight cluster of conversation. Participants contribute more equally and the value of each individual contribution is more significant. Where that sort of cluster is built around the right small group of people, knowledge and expertise can be combined to make high-quality decisions quickly.
From the days of swords and sandals to the age of gunpowder, that advantage was often defined as 'taking the high ground.' For centuries, from the Battle of Hastings to seizing the bluffs over Omaha Beach, taking the high ground was the prerequisite for victory. The reasons are simple. It is easier to defend a hill than a valley. It is harder to attack uphill than down. From the high ground the enemy can be seen approaching—surprise is lost. In the valley, an army might not know of the enemy’s approach until shots ring out.
Today, however, at least as far as social networks are concerned, the high ground isn’t what it used to be. There is a different 'high ground' on the terrain of electrons. The far left and far right edges of the social networking curve are the new high ground. At the left end (in broadcast mode) social networks can be a commanding instrument of mass mobilisation. At the right end (in conversation mode) social networks can be used by virtual teams to out-think any adversary. In matters of national security, winning the information war at one or both of those coordinates on the curve could spell the difference between winning and losing.
Defining the high ground helps establish a 'theory' of victory for applying social networking to national security. Now what's required are strategies, doctrines, and tools to craft the campaign plans that will help nations win online.
* These are the author’s personal views.