Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker piece, Small Change: Why the Revolution Won’t Be Tweeted, has inspired a lot of kvetching. Why do I need to add my thoughts? Especially when this post is more of a brain dump than a well thought out response? Because many people already have misperceptions about social media and those who use it. I guess I take it a bit personally. I cherish my Twitter communities. I don’t have grand expectations about Twitter — it is what it is, a place to chat, to give and receive. Yes, it can be a catalyst for change — personal, cultural or organizational. I get the sense that Gladwell assigns it roles that it is still growing into, like a teenager.
Gladwell writes, “Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.” Really? Who’s defining them that way? Oh, you are, so it must be true. No, activists are still defined by their causes. Tools are tools, nothing more. Tools can help enhance conversation, community, and, yes, causes, but they are still merely tools, used ineptly by some and to great effect by others.
Campaigns have always used the best tools available – theses nailed to doors, letters to the editor, handbills on street corners, flyers stapled to bulletin boards, neighborhood canvassing, phone trees, advertisements, and now Twitter and Facebook pages. There’s always been those who profited by the choice of tools, be it a printer or publisher, or now social media companies.
Gladwell writes about the use of Twitter in Iran or Moldova when they were experiencing political unrest. No matter Twitter’s use or effect there, the buzz resulted in more people outside of those countries paying attention to their troubles. If you were on Twitter during the Iranian demonstrations, you saw an outbreak of green avatars (profile photos), and might have wondered why. If you didn’t read or listen to mainstream media, at least you’d have an inkling of what was happening in Iran if you were curious enough to learn more.
He noted that those involved in “high-risk activism” like the civil rights movement, were more likely to be personally connected to others in the movement. He says, “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties…weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”
I agree that weak ties do not usually lead to getting involved in high-risk activism. But weak ties will lead to buzz, familiarity, forming opinions, or donations. I may not commit to real activism, but now I’m aware and may even do something low-risk.
Weak ties can grow into true friendships over time, if people make the effort to develop relationships whether by phone or meeting face-to-face. If not for Twitter, I never would have met the friends I have now in Raleigh. We met and broke the ice on Twitter; hanging out in real life cemented our friendships. I would have lost touch (because I am lousy at phone calls) with my friends in DC and California if not for Facebook. Social media enhances my world of relationships. Yes, I have more shallow friends than deep friends on those networks, but shallow can turn into deep if some effort is put into the relationship.
Gladwell does understand this, “There is strength in weak ties, …. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information.” That’s an important observation. Our Twitter friends bring us diverse perspectives and different resources than what we have around us. That’s one of the reasons Twitter is my most valuable professional development tool.
However then he blows it by saying, “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.” Really? We don’t get that distinction? Who is he talking about? Does he really think that we don’t understand the difference between our types of relationships?
He then points out a critical factor about social media, its lateral network structure as opposed to the traditional vertical hierarchical structure of most organizations. But he adds, “Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”
Is this true? Or is this a Boomer way of looking at how new groups work? I don’t know yet. But I can imagine social networks that gather momentum, and spin off leadership groups who strategize off-line via web conferencing, and then leverage their network for action, some low-risk, some high-risk activism. Networks can be a feeder system, recruiting ground and publicity machine. There are more benefits than detriments to this type of organization. By working together, weak online ties can develop into strong personal ties; I’ve seen this happen countless time between association members.
His article, despite my issues with some of his points, is worth reading. It’ll make you think about social media in our society. In making comparisons, he brings us back to one of our history’s shining and troubling times – the civil rights movement. Why does he assume such grand ambitions for social media? It’s changing weekly; it’s barely in puberty. We’re all part of it and we’re still trying to figure it out. You can have expectations and compare it to older ways of community and communication, but if you do that, you’re bound to find ways to be let down. Focus on the good that it can bring to people’s lives. Why be so grumpy, Malcolm?