Thursday, October 7, 2010

You can't click your way to social change

Malcom Gladwell wrote a terrific article in this week's New Yorker: Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. In it, he incisively draws distinctions between virtual activity -- Tweeting, 'liking' a Facebook page, blogging, and so on -- versus effecting social or political change. Gladwell's argument punctures some of the breathless It Changes Everything hype we've all been reading about the interactive web these past five or so years, and reminds the reader of the grit and the real -- not virtual -- relationships that have enabled successful political movements in the recent and distant past.

The compressed story Gladwell tells: there's a difference between relationships that those who study social networks call "strong" vs. those they call "weak" ties. Weak ties, like those one makes when following somebody on Twitter or liking a Facebook page, can be quite effective in getting people to do stuff that takes only a little bit of commitment (like clicking a link or entering a name and e-mail address on a petition). To elicit deep commitment, and the kind of risk-taking that is necessary to change a society's deeply rooted structures or practices, requires strong ties -- the types of relationships that are forged among people who live, work, and/or struggle together, like those fostered in military training, college dorms, families, and, well, corporations and disciplined party organizations.

Gladwell uses the Greensboro sit-ins and the larger history of civil rights organizing in the American South as an exemplar of strong-tie organizing, explaining how the deeply resonant sit-ins at a Woolworth's lunch counter were seeded by recent civil rights history and initiated by a group of young men who had each other's backs in a serious way.

Here's a paragraph from Gladwell's argument that gives a flavor of the difference he's asserting between Facebook- and Greensboro-quality relationships and effect:
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

The article doesn't argue that on-line organizing is worthless. That would be silly.

Look, for example, at, an organization formed in response to attempts by the Party of No to derail the Clinton presidency (by impeaching him on charges of perjury & more arising from his inability to keep his zipper zipped). Begun as an on-line petition (weak ties), the group has gone on to raise millions of dollars for political candidates; provide endorsements that significantly influence elections; buy print, billboard, and broadcast media to advance its members' positions; run phone banks and door-to-door canvassing efforts to mobilize voters; and regularly facilitate house meetings in many many locales, around issues of immediate moment. MoveOn's primary modes of internal communication remains e-mail, the group's website, and social networks (as is the case for nearly every 21st century organization); but the group also fosters stronger, face-to-face ties within communities and realizes boots-on-the-ground political engagement from its on-line membership.

Gladwell's article reminds me why I love to read The New Yorker. With so much hype, silliness, and downright disinformation in news, political campaigns, and certainly in the blogosphere, hanging out (mentally speaking) in an oasis of carefully developed and well-articulated thought is refreshing, nurturing, and real. I don't mean to suggest that The New Yorker is the only venue for that kind of immersion in reality! Nor am I saying that the liberal perspective of most of that magazine's writers and editors is the only point of view that can generate clear, reality-based ideas. But I do believe that, whatever one's political leanings and mode of engagement, everybody who aspires to responsible citizenship needs to step back on a regular basis from hype and partisan yammering in order to do a bit of thinking. If you don't like The New Yorker, read The Economist.

But, even if you read The Economist, have a look at Gladwell's article. It's well worth your time.

Thanks to Pop!Tech for the photo of Malcom Gladwell.

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