Starving the Periphery in Three Easy Steps

This validates Amartya Sen’s idea of failure of entitlement as the root of starvation and malnutrition.

Step 1: land grab (with government blessing and tax breaks on top)

“It’s the deal of the century: £150 a week to lease more than 2,500 sq km (1,000 sq miles) of virgin, fertile land – an area the size of Dorset – for 50 years. Bangalore-based food company Karuturi Global says it had not even seen the land when it was offered by the Ethiopian government with tax breaks thrown in.

Karuturi snapped it up, and next year the company, one of the world’s top 25 agri-businesses, will export palm oil, sugar, rice and other foods from Gambella province – a remote region near the Sudan border – to world markets.

Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of humanitarian food and development assistance, last year receiving more than 700,000 tonnes of food and £1.8bn in aid, but it has offered three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of virgin land to foreign corporations such as Karuturi.

“It’s very good land. It’s quite cheap. In fact it is very cheap. We have no land like this in India,” says Karmjeet Sekhon, project manager for what is expected to be one of Africa’s largest farms. “There you are lucky to get 1% of organic matter in the soil. Here it is more than 5%. We don’t need fertiliser or herbicides. There is absolutely nothing that will not grow on it.

(…)

Sparsely-populated Gambella is at the centre of the global rush for cheap land, precipitated by the oil price rise in 2007/2008, when many countries racked by food riots encouraged their farmers to invest abroad to grow food.

The lowest prices are in Africa, where, says the World Bank, at least 35 million hectares of land has been bought or leased. Other groups, including Friends of the Earth International, say the figure is higher. The Ethiopian government says 36 countries including India, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have leased farm land there.

Gambella has offered investors 1.1 million hectares, nearly a quarter of its best farmland, and 896 companies have come to the region in the last three years. They range from Saudi billionaire Al Amoudi, who is constructing a 20-mile canal to irrigate 10,000 hectares to grow rice, to Ethiopian businessmen who have plots of less than 200 hectares.

This month the concessions are being worked at a breakneck pace, with giant tractors and heavy machinery clearing trees, draining swamps and ploughing the land in time to catch the next growing season.

Forests across hundreds of square km are being clear-felled and burned to the dismay of locals and environmentalists concerned about the fate of the region’s rich wildlife.”

I am sure this will do wonder to feed the local population. But after all, neoliberal agencies of global governance have encouraged peripheral governments to do this for a long time. Comparative advantage and all.

And part of the land grab has to do with Western biofuel production.

Step 2: Speculate!

“But a new theory is emerging among traders and economists. The same banks, hedge funds and financiers whose speculation on the global money markets caused the sub-prime mortgage crisis are thought to be causing food prices to yo-yo and inflate. The charge against them is that by taking advantage of the deregulation of global commodity markets they are making billions from speculating on food and causing misery around the world.

(…)

There has always been modest, even welcome, speculation in food prices and it traditionally worked like this. Farmer X protected himself against climatic or other risks by “hedging”, or agreeing to sell his crop in advance of the harvest to Trader Y. This guaranteed him a price, and allowed him to plan ahead and invest further, and it allowed Trader Y to profit, too. In a bad year, Farmer X got a good return but in a good year Trader Y did better.

When this process of “hedging” was tightly regulated, it worked well enough. The price of real food on the real world market was still set by the real forces of supply and demand.

But all that changed in the mid-1990s. Then, following heavy lobbying by banks, hedge funds and free market politicians in the US and Britain, the regulations on commodity markets were steadily abolished. Contracts to buy and sell foods were turned into “derivatives” that could be bought and sold among traders who had nothing to do with agriculture. In effect a new, unreal market in “food speculation” was born. Cocoa, fruit juices, sugar, staples, meat and coffee are all now global commodities, along with oil, gold and metals. Then in 2006 came the US sub-prime disaster and banks and traders stampeded to move billions of dollars in pension funds and equities into safe commodities, and especially foods.”

Step 3: Don’t forget the Whole Foods crowd! They have needs too!

“It is the “lost crop” of the Incas, a health-giving seed found in the Andes which is increasingly providing the garnish on fashionable Western dinner plates. But while demand for quinoa has given a lifeline to Bolivia’s farmers, the native population, no longer able to afford a staple of the national diet, is now facing the threat of malnutrition.

(…)

Entrepreneurial Bolivians are returning from the city to cultivate quinoa plots in the countryside. But the country’s agriculture ministry is reporting that as prices have risen national quinoa consumption has slumped by 34 per cent over five years, with local families no longer able to afford a staple that has become a luxury. A 1kg bag of quinoa costs almost five times the amount of its rice equivalent in local stores.

Bolivia has long suffered from a malnutrition problem and there are fears that the population will be forced to turn to cheaper, processed foods. Children in the quinoa- growing south of the country are among those showing chronic malnutrition symptoms.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s President, is promising a $10 million loan facility for farmers to grow more quinoa designed for domestic consumption. But there is a growing North American export market to satisfy and global food commodity prices are continuing to rise.”

Hey, who said the market did not allocate resources, goods and services efficiently, from the periphery to the core, just as it should be!

What is disheartening is that for each article I just linked to in this post, the first comment is usually of the Malthusian kind. People, we do not have a food production problem. We have again, what Sen calls entitlement failure as opposed to food availability decline, something I have already discussed here.

My Life As A “Feminist”

See what I did up there, with the scare quotes. So here is the deal, when you use quotation marks and you are not actually quoting anything, it means the stuff between the quotation marks is not really true, right?

Here goes:

Why the quotation marks? This is a case about a major class action on gender discrimination, alleging that a certain company engaged in… wait for it… sexist discrimination.

So, I thought this was just some casual writing, but then, they did it again:

Because women’s allegations are always in doubt, you see. They could all be overreacting.

Music Break – Duran Duran

Yeah, I was in high school when Duran Duran was a major band (so, yeah, bite me). But apparently, all these bands from the 80s are making a comeback (The Cars in May!!), so why not them. Their latest album is actually quite good. Here is All You Need is Now, directed by David Lynch:

The Visual Du Jour – Protests!

Via Natasha Chart,

The legend is as follows:

  • Red: deaths
  • Orange:major injuries, damage, arrests, Yellow: minor injuries, etc.
  • Green: Peaceful

The number of pickets refers to  size:

  • 1: Under 100,
  • 2: 100-1000
  • 3: 1000-10000
  • 4. 10K – 100K,
  • 5. Over 100K.

It is not completely exhaustive, of course, but it is still very neat and well done.

Interestingly, even though there are protests in the US, that country is vastly under-protested considering the policies coming down the pike.

If It’s Not Trending on Twitter, It Does Not Exist

A while back, I reviewed Virgil Hawkins’s Stealth Conflict. In the book, Hawkins argues that the structure and organization of the media (among with other factors) lead to ignoring certain conflicts (stealth conflicts) while prioritizing coverage of others (chosen conflicts). The bottom line is that what makes a conflict chosen is not how serious it is, or how long it has been going on or even the numbers of death. Our media pay attention to conflicts that can fit in nicely packaged narratives that are familiar to Western audiences, where there is a clear moral tale to be told and where there is something in it for us (in addition to structural factors).

In this more recent post, Hawkins turns his attention to the “new media”, using the coverage of the current protest movements across the Middle East (chosen conflicts) as opposed to the virtual silence on Ivory Coast. Bottom line: not much difference:

“For audiences in the English-speaking West, one important ingredient necessary for media attention that was missing from the Cote d’Ivoire story was familiarity. This is not simply a matter of racial, linguistic or socioeconomic affinity – although this is certainly a major part of it. Cote d’Ivoire has rarely been covered in the past, so the public lacks the background knowledge and context to make sense of events there. Had exactly the same events happened in Zimbabwe, the reaction would have undoubtedly been very different. For more than ten years, Zimbabwe has been heavily covered (and Robert Mugabe thoroughly demonized) by the Western media.

Also, importantly, Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t quite fit into the ‘big frame’ of the times – the tool that helps us all put a particular news story into its appropriate ‘box’ and quickly make sense of it – like ‘communism’, ‘terrorism’, and now, ‘revolution in the Middle East’. Cote d’Ivoire could certainly be framed as a story of people rising up against an illegitimate government and fighting for democracy – it’s just that it is not happening in the Middle East (it in fact predated the initial Tunisian uprising). And if levels of media coverage to date serve as any indication, events in the Middle East are far more ‘important’ than those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Advances in technology have revolutionized our access to information about the world. If we actively search online, we can very quickly find out what is going on almost anywhere in the world. But for the vast majority of us who continue to rely on the news media (on or offline) to help us make decisions about what information about the world is important; it appears that very little has changed.”

This seems to validate the cyber-cranks like me (as opposed to the cyber-utopians) who thing that social media technologies are great and all, but they do not change regimes or political power dynamics. The processes through which conflicts end up stealth or chosen seem the same for “old” and “new” media. This is not surprising as these media do not exist in separate spheres but have high levels of interaction and overlap. And while African conflicts may pop up every once in a while on Twitter, these do not trend as much as the current Middle Eastern protests.

A Moment of Hilarity While Grading

So I heard about this idiotic person complaining that Glee is turning teenagers gay:

First, I love the “some say” at the beginning of the clip. It’s a sure sign of “I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

But anyhoo, the thing that completely cracked me up is that while this moron is ranting and raving and Bible beating, they run the gay kiss over and over in a loop. Geebuz, they must have turn a million people gay right there!

What Is Sociology For? Bad Music?

Dear Maude, that is information we should bury and all agree to never mention again:

“One is the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs with responsibility for overseeing emergency relief in disaster-hit areas, the other is a chart-topping singer-songwriter. But what Lady Amos and James Blunt have in common is that both are sociology graduates and have used the knowledge gained in their degrees to forge successful careers.

Amos held various roles in local government and was chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission before becoming the first black leader of the House of Lords and moving on to her position at the UN. Meanwhile, Blunt says his degree has proved useful to his music. “There are some aspects that are relevant to the songs I’m writing – about the way humans interact, the way we are as social beings – those topics are kind of relevant,” he says.”

Although the article is not very original in its career outlook for sociology majors:

“Sociology graduates leave university with a broad range of transferable skills. These include being able to work to deadlines, make reasoned arguments and think creatively.

Through doing presentations you will have learned how to present ideas orally and in writing, and developed strong research and IT skills. You will also be able to apply theoretical sociological perspectives to everyday life.”

How un-sociological. Sorry but one of the major skills sociology majors possess is the capacity to generate, process, and analyze data critically. In the knowledge economy, this is essential. Those kinds of skills are useful in business, marketing and advertising and anything that has to do with analyzing social data.

Being a sociology major does not condemn one to social work (one should major in, oh, I don’t know, social work), and welfare agencies. And I think we should get more sociologists in development, a field largely abandoned to economists, with the brilliant results that we have seen.

Also, more sociologists are needed in journalism, considering the amount of BS spewed out by major newspapers, magazines, and TV shows on social issues.

Here is Dalton Conley discussing the same subject:

Manuel Castells on Social Movements and The Internet (Again)

Manuel Castells has an interview for the Open University of Catalonia where he again discusses the role of the Internet in the recent social movements in the Middle East.

While acknowledging that the current uprisings in the Middle East are the first social movements truly facilitated by the Internet, Castells says he is not surprised by such a development, especially in light of his mass self-communication concept. After all, the transformation of communication technologies creates new spaces for the mobilization and organization of social movements. The Internet provides significant tools to overcome communication and censorship barriers as well as state repression. However, the Internet is a necessary but not sufficient condition for this. The roots of the uprisings have more to do with persistent exploitation, oppression and humiliation by state powers. However, the probability of success of an uprising is how quickly it can mobilize before the state reacts. Clearly, the Internet accelerates such mobilization.

Of course, the Internet can only play its mobilizing role if people are actually connected. And this was the case in Egypt where 40% of the population over 16 is connected, and taking into account not only home connections but also cybercafes and universities, that number reaches roughly 70% and we know how central the youth of Egypt were to the uprising. One should also take into account the role smart phones and cell phones (about 80% of urban adults are connected that way). Now, all these connected people have not taken to the streets but enough of them have done so and felt connected and unified enough to effect regime change. And in this case (and as may be the case throughout developing countries), mobile access via cell phones has become a greater tool of connection than traditional Internet access. The real digital divide, in this case, is in terms of bandwidth and quality of connection, but not access.

At the same time, Castells does not believe that governments have the tools to successfully block the networks. The Egyptian government tried and failed to block access and the recovery time from these attempts was quite fast. The difference between the various social movements has more to do with how much repression and violence governments can mete out and how much of it ends up on Youtube. But no matter, the seeds of rebellion have been planted and it is now only a matter of time.

Castells also notes a shift in the kind of leadership that emerges out of the current movements. Traditionally, movement heroes like Daniel Cohn-Bendit or Lech Walesa emerged out of political grassroots and continued on to have political careers. On the other hand, the Egyptian movement saw the rise of Wael Ghonim, a young Google executive, with technological, rather than political expertise. It does not look like he wants a political future either.

What of the Muslim Brotherhood then, who claimed to have made full use of Internet capabilities (even their own version of Wikipedia)? For Castells, that is not so remarkable since Internet use is practically mandatory for any organization that does not want to be left behind and outdated. Internet use per se does not mean much anymore, and it certainly does not mean electoral victories to come. After all, the movement totally passed them by. More than that, the government tried to exaggerate the risk of Muslim Brotherhood takeover the same way that Franco used the fear of communism, to present themselves as bastions of stability, even though the Spanish communist party scored rather low in elections. That didn’t work. The risk of Muslim radicalization (and that is not the gentrified Muslim Brotherhood) will only emerge if the military does not keep its promise of free elections.

Regarding the role of the traditional media, Castells argues that they have no choice but to make alliances with the new media organizations (such as Wikileaks) or face irrelevance, marginalization and the complete collapse of their business model. When such alliances exist, though, as with the case of Al-Jazeera, there is no denying their power for social change. However, context matters and such uprisings are not likely to happen in Asia in general or China in particular (the urban youth are getting richer and the rural poor are too far away).

So, I guess it’s not yet time to throw away our traditional relative deprivation and resource mobilization models for social movements.

Michael Klare Was Prescient (Which is Why You Should All Read Him)

Unless the consistently-wrong hacks that pass for experts in the media and get cushy jobs writing inane op-eds for major newspapers…

So, in January, Klare wrote this:

“Get ready for a rocky year. From now on, rising prices, powerful storms, severe droughts and floods, and other unexpected events are likely to play havoc with the fabric of global society, producing chaos and political unrest. Start with a simple fact: the prices of basic food staples are already approaching or exceeding their 2008 peaks, that year when deadly riots erupted in dozens of countries around the world.

It’s not surprising then that food and energy experts are beginning to warn that 2011 could be the year of living dangerously — and so could 2012, 2013, and on into the future. Add to the soaring cost of the grains that keep so many impoverished people alive a comparable rise in oil prices — again nearing levels not seen since the peak months of 2008 — and you can already hear the first rumblings about the tenuous economic recovery being in danger of imminent collapse. Think of those rising energy prices as adding further fuel to global discontent.

Already, combined with staggering levels of youth unemployment and a deep mistrust of autocratic, repressive governments, food prices have sparked riots in Algeria and mass protests in Tunisia that, to the surprise of the world, ousted long-time dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his corrupt extended family. And many of the social stresses evident in those two countries are present across the Middle East and elsewhere. No one can predict where the next explosion will occur, but with food prices still climbing and other economic pressures mounting, more upheavals appear inevitable. These may be the first resource revolts to catch our attention, but they won’t be the last.

Put simply, global consumption patterns are now beginning to challenge the planet’s natural resource limits. Populations are still on the rise, and from Brazil to India, Turkey to China, new powers are rising as well. With them goes an urge for a more American-style life. Not surprisingly, the demand for basic commodities is significantly on the rise, even as supplies in many instances are shrinking. At the same time, climate change, itself a product of unbridled energy use, is adding to the pressure on supplies, and speculators are betting on a situation trending progressively worse. Add these together and the road ahead appears increasingly rocky.

(…)

What makes the picture look so worrisome today are indications that the severity and frequency of extreme weather events appear to be on the rise. In the past few weeks alone, several such events point the way to serious supply problems ahead. Most significant has been the unprecedented rainfall and flooding in Australia that put an area more than twice the size of California largely underwater, significantly disrupting wheat cultivation there. Australia is one of the world’s leading wheat producers. Unusually dry conditions in the American Midwest and Argentina have also hinted at future problems in grain and corn output. It’s still too early to predict the size of this year’s grain and corn harvests, but many analysts are warning of a shortfall in supplies, along with sky-high prices.
(…)

According to some calculations, oil prices added another $72 billion to America’s mammoth balance-of-payments deficit last year. Europe had to cough up an additional $70 billion for imported oil and Japan $27 billion. “It is a very telling story,” says the IEA’s Fatih Birol of recent oil-price data. “2010 rang the first alarm bells and 2011 price levels could bring us to the same financial crisis times that we saw in 2008.”

Rising food prices leading to riots, protests, and revolts, mounting oil prices, mammoth worldwide unemployment, and a collapsed recovery — it looks like the perfect set of preconditions for a global tsunami of instability and turmoil. Events in Algeria and Tunisia give us just an inkling of what this maelstrom might look like, but where and how it will next erupt, and in what form, is anyone’s guess. A single guarantee: we haven’t seen the last of resource revolts which, in the coming years, could reach an intensity we scarcely imagine today.”

Bad pun, considering current events.

And in this more recent column, Klare adopts the longue durée perspective to deliver a grim assessment: the end of the oil age:

“In other words, if one traces a reasonable trajectory from current developments in the Middle East, the handwriting is already on the wall. Since no other area is capable of replacing the Middle East as the world’s premier oil exporter, the oil economy will shrivel — and with it, the global economy as a whole.

Consider the recent rise in the price of oil just a faint and early tremor heralding the oilquake to come. Oil won’t disappear from international markets, but in the coming decades it will never reach the volumes needed to satisfy projected world demand, which means that, sooner rather than later, scarcity will become the dominant market condition. Only the rapid development of alternative sources of energy and a dramatic reduction in oil consumption might spare the world the most severe economic repercussions.”

We are already seeing resource wars. They will only get more intense. Which is why this is happening:

“Sales by the world’s biggest arms companies increased significantly at a time of global economic recession, figures released today show.

The top 100 arms-producing companies increased their sales by $14.8bn (£9.1bn) to total more than $400bn in 2009, a rise of 8% in real terms, according to the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

Arms sales by the companies have increased by nearly 60% in real terms since 2002, it said.

Military spending by the US government was described by Sipri arms industry expert Susan Jackson as a “key factor in arms sales increases for US arms-producing and military services companies and for western European companies with a foothold in the US arms and military services market”.

The report lists Lockheed Martin as the world’s leading company in terms of arms sales, valued at $33.43bn in 2009. The US company was followed closely by Britain’s BAE Systems, with sales valued at $33.25bn. BAE came ahead of four US companies – Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon.”

The Slave Next Door

And how many more like her?

“A former hospital director has been ordered to pay £25,000 to an African woman she kept as a slave in London.

Mwanahamisi Mruke, 47, was flown from Tanzania in 2006 and made to work 18-hour days for Saeeda Khan, 68, at her home in Harrow, north-west London.

Khan was convicted of trafficking a person into the UK for exploitation.

The judge at Southwark Crown Court, who also gave her a suspended nine-month prison term, said she was guilty of “the most appalling greed”.”

That is pretty light considering how she treated Mwanahamisi Mruke but the story is familiar:

“”Even the money I was promised, I was never paid. I feel terrible about this,” Ms Mruke said.

“I was hoping I would receive a salary and improve my life. But my hopes were dashed, my strength was reduced and I became unwell.”

Ms Mruke was brought to the UK after getting a job at a hospital in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania which Khan owned.

Khan told her that she would work six hours a day and that her daughter in Tanzania would be paid 120,000 Tanzanian shillings a month, equivalent to £50.

Khan fed her two slices of bread a day and ordered her around by ringing a bell she kept in her bedroom.

(…)

Ms Mruke was banned from leaving the house and never learned English because the family watched Pakistani TV.

Beginning work at 0600 GMT, she would often not be allowed to rest before midnight as she cleaned, gardened, cooked meals and accompanied Khan’s disabled son on walks.

Ms Mruke told the court that sometimes she did not sleep due to the long hours she had to work, doing “all the housework, cooking, cleaning, inside and out”.

“She didn’t attack me physically. It was just the words and the way she was treating me.””

It is one of the characteristics of modern slavery to be individualized, invisible and ordinary. And, of course, suburbanization makes it possible to keep domestic slaves safely hidden form view.

Book Review – Les Liaisons Numériques

Antonio Casilli‘s Les Liaisons Numériques: Vers Une Nouvelle Sociabilité? is an rigorous yet original exploration of the many ways in which information and communication technologies change the way we interact. I do hope the book gets translated in English in a near future as it is quite relevant to the current debates on the political impact (or lack thereof) of social networking platforms.

At the same time, the book does not really deal with larger, macrosociological questions that have been at the heart of current discussions, such as the role of social media in social movements and revolutions, the issue of privacy (if there is still such a thing) and control (from governments or corporations).

In the book, Casilli tackles three major topics:

  1. The issue of space in cyberspace, in contrast to physical space and the relationships between the two;
  2. The issue of the body, virtual or physical, and the relationships between the two;
  3. And the strength and weaknesses of digital ties (in the tradition of Granovetter’s strength of weak ties).

In all three sections (space, body and ties), Casilli engages in quite a bit of debunking, arguing against both cyber-utopians and cyber-prophets of doom. He does so by marshaling personal stories and studies, engaging with the current research, explorations of a variety of social networking platforms to give us a sense of the variety of “digital liaisons” and interactions, as they mix aspects of “something old, something new”.

The bottom line is that social networking platforms change the way we interact and have given birth to new forms of sociability that take into account off-line aspects of our identity but also allow us to construct a hybrid online multi-faceted self. Physical spaces, physical bodies and off-line ties do not disappear, contrary to what the cyber-pessimists keep telling us, but they continue to exist both alongside cyberspaces, virtual bodies and online ties, interacting with them in a variety of fashions.

In this sense, digital interactions should lead us to reevaluate the sociological trope of individualization, as individualization-within-social-contexts provided by digital environments, as well as the concept of community. For instance, in virtual communities, interactions involve quite a bit of gift / counter-gift mechanisms (the reference to Mauss is appropriate here) which may take the form of links or retweets and other tokens of mutual recognition. In addition, virtual communities correlate involvement in the community and desire for public recognition. And finally, community members need to have the sense that their contributions make a difference rather quickly, which serves as a motivator for further participation and people collect social rewards that are proportionate to the time and energy they devote to the community.. As Casilli notes, this is somewhat different from off-line communities where social recognition takes time to build and where rewards are much more uncertain.

The emergence and growth of virtual community then should put to rest the notion that communities need physical spaces to exist and thrive and face-to-face settings are no longer the exclusive (and authentic) mode of interaction. At the same time, virtual interactions do not replace physical ones, they enrich them, but they have their own norms. This leads Casilli to invoke the concept of double habitat.

The reexamination of spaces with the virtual cities and e-governments also leads to changes in our conception of public spaces (in Habermas’s sense) and political participation. Which is all well and great but does contribute to the digital divide, with stratification modes based on presence or absence on networks, information-rich versus information-poor and where distribution and allocation of assistance, support and resources take place through networks. In such a world, those with fast Internet access enjoy social privileges as opposed to the social exclusion of those left off-line.

This also raises the questions of the possibilities of political contestation when there is no actual space to contest (hence, I think, the social uses of hacking). So, for Casilli, one must not be naive in thinking that the “everything virtual” is the easy solution to all sorts of social integration issues or that the Internet is the great democratization tool where everyone is equal. At the same time, the rise of virtual communities may very well be a sign of closure of physical spaces of sociability.

The rise of virtual communities has been accompanied with a redrawing of the line between public and private spaces. In debates about privacy, the big issues had to do with how much outside intrusion into one’s private sphere. But with online communities, the issues is that of how much one should make public private information. Actors have limited control over the former, but can strategize on the latter, with all the corresponding risks. After all, at this point, most community users know that whatever bits of information they put online can never be private again in a context of ubiquitous and continuous surveillance, something that Casilli calls participative surveillance.

When it comes to the body, Casilli goes after the common assertion that the Internet is full of fat people, living in their mom’s basements, socially awkward, and reconstructing a fake, ideal body in virtual environments. But, as Casilli demonstrates, contrary to that assertion, the Internet is full of bodily traces, photos, videos, real-life looking avatars and other signals of one’s real physical appearance. Most social networking platforms have, as their first step in participation, the building up of a profile, using a variety of media. And there is no doubt that Goffman would have a field day studying all the ways in which we present our selves in these environments.

In this context, it is amazing that an important meme still is that of the disappearance of the body. And while that actors “work” on their body as online project through a variety of media, it is mostly not in order to deceive but rather to harmonize their avatars with the social community they are a part of. In this context, I highly recommend the section on pro-ana virtual communities as illustration of the social construction of the body and computer-assisted socialization.

In the last section of the book, Casilli proposes his own version of the strength of weak ties, as applied to virtual communities and digital interactions. At this point, of course, it feels like shooting fish in a barrel to go after the Putnam thesis. Again, reality is more nuanced and more complex than that. The first thing that Casilli notes is that virtual interactions supplement existing social relationships (bonding capital). But there are also new forms of sociability that people engage in based on affinity, opportunities and need for social recognition.

In social networking platforms, weak ties correlate with high sociability. Heck, I heard about Casilli first on Twitter where I started following him (he showed up on Twitter’s recommendation of people I should follow because I followed other people), based on a tweet linking to his blog post on Avatars. Once his book got published, he also used Twitter to publicize it, so, the next time I went to France to visit my family, I got myself a copy in a brick-and-mortar bookstore… See? No separation between virtual and physical, between strong and weak ties, between bonding and bridging.

The weak ties between members of virtual communities and social networks fill structural holes and give members access to resources that they would not have access to, if they were limited to bonding capital and to off-line preexisting relationships. And once structural holes are filled, information circulates more easily.

On a larger, and more political, scale, this is what Wikipedia does: not so much revealing secrets but making information circulate, and, at the same time, exposing the fact that traditional media operate more like the little boxes of bonding relationships (and in the little box, you have political and media elites). In this sense, online “friends” (as in “Facebook friends”) are conduits of information more than they are friends (in the traditional sense). I have to say that I use my Twitter timeline, in part, as a source of information (along with my newsreader) and no longer television.

It may feel, at times, that the book is a bit all over the place. It is. And I think it is deliberate. The entire book is not so much a study as an exploration of the diversity of ties and of the various forms that sociability takes in the context of Web 2.0. It is rich in examples and case studies, along with the more traditional social-scientific research. It is also highly readable and the numerous “stories” make it quite entertaining. As I mentioned above, I do hope it gets translated in English soon.

Highly recommended (for French-reading audiences, that is).