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Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted - Malcolm Gladwell

Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted - Malcolm Gladwell

Written by Bud Hunt
October 05, 2010

In his essay, “Small Changes,” published in the New Yorker in October, 2010, Malcolm Gladwell pushes back on the notion that social media has opened doors to new kinds of protests, and the the Internet and tools of social media have helped us to become better organizers than we’ve been before:

Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

Gladwell deconstructs online protest and social activism, ultimately declaring that Twitterers and Facebookers are engaged in something, but it isn’t activism in the sense of a sacrifice made for social change:

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.

In fact, writes Gladwell, social media helps us to organize differently, in ways that may not lead to drastic social change:

This is the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.

Gladwell concludes in his piece that, while we can accomplish things through social media, what we may well accomplish is of lesser consequence than what can be done through hierarchical, and much more difficult, organization. Real soclal change?  Perhaps not via social media.

The distinction that Gladwell makes between “strong ties” – or strong social relationships (think of your best friend, or your spouse) versus “weak ties” (your third cousin’s soccer coach, who you met once at a game) is that real revolution, or activism, or change, occurs through the strong variety.  Weak ties aren’t strong enough to get the job done.

Jonah Lehrer, responding in Wired, writes that, in fact, the social connections that weak ties provide are quite important in activism, and, in fact, contributed to the success of some of what Gladwell referred to as strong tie successes.  He references Mark Granovetter, who first wrote of “The Strength of Weak Ties” in 1973:

Granovetter goes on to argue that weak ties play a seminal role in building trust among a large group of loosely affiliated members, which is essential for rallying behind a cause. (He compares the West End to Charlestown, which was full of “bridging weak ties” and successfully fought off a massive urban renewal project.)

While Gladwell argues that the flat hierarchies of online networks are a detriment to effective activism — he cites the leaderless P.L.O. as an example — Granovetter points out that leaders of social movements often depend on weak ties to maintain loyalty. He notes that organizations dominated by strong ties tend to produce fragmentation and cliquishness, which quickly leads to the breakdown of trust.

This suggests that part of the reason Martin Luther King was able to inspire such discipline among a relatively large group of followers was that he cultivated a large number of weak ties. As a result, people felt like they trusted him, even though they barely knew him. Here’s Granovetter:

Leaders, for their part, have little motivation to be responsive or even trustworthy toward those to whom they have no direct or indirect connection. [This is what happens in a group without weak ties.] Thus, network fragmentation, by reducing drastically the number of paths from any leader to his potential followers, would inhibit trust in such leaders.

So it may well be that, while Gladwell has focused on the fact that there is a need to have strong ties in a successful attempt at activism, he may well have overlooked that weak ties were important, too.

Social media is good at promoting weak ties.  Other structures promote and strengthen strong ties.  Social media may well be one of them, in some cases.  The both are necessary for activism that leads to change.

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