Is the social web a network of ‘weak ties’?

26 Oct

 

Gladwell: "The revolution will not be tweeted"

Please bear in mind this question when you read this blog:

Do you know of anyone who has put themselves in harm’s way or risked their financial wellbeing or done anything that is personally very draining or onerous as a result of a call to action on the social web?

I ask because Malcolm Gladwell, the big-brained, frizzy-haired columnist for New Yorker magazine, has just argued that “The revolution will not be tweeted”.

Gladwell’s article pours cold water on the suggestion that social networking can significantly lead or even influence contemporary revolutionary activity and social movements.

His eloquent opening paragraphs tell how four students from North Carolina, held a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 to protest against racism. Within days their action inspired thousands of other people to hold sit-ins in cities throughout the Deep South.

Gladwell claims that effective advocacy that leads to broad social or political change requires “strong ties” among people who are closely connected, committed to the cause, and well organised. People join and support movements, for example the Afghan Mujahideen or the East German revolutionaries who brought down the Berlin Wall, because friends, brothers, cousins and the like are already members. The Greensboro boys drew strength from the close ties between them.

He claims social media, on the other hand, is built around precisely the opposite: weak ties between people with minimal commitment and no organisational structure.

In other words, real activism involves putting yourself in harm’s way, maybe burning cars or antagonising dangerous people – not merely tweeting using the #iranelection hashtag while munching pains aux chocolat in the local Caffe Nero.

In his key paragraph he states:

“The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, as you never could in real life.”

Notably, Gladwell is not citicising the Internet in general and acknowledges its value:

“The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

He is simply saying Twitter and Facebook are rubbish tools for revolutionaries.

I am prepared to be persuaded by Gladwell until someone can give me one good example of a time when someone has made a huge effort in support of a social cause because of some kind of prompt from a ‘weak tie’ on the Internet. 

But I add a few points:

1. No-one ever said social media would, alone, bring about social change. That would be like saying the telephone or the printing press caused revolutions. People bring about social change. Media help and more usable, sophisticated media help more. Wouldn’t Martin Luther King have found a use for Twitter, Facebook and YouTube?

2. With the exception of the mother and baby tie, all strong ties start off weak and if social media can create lots of weak ties, it seems to me the likelihood of more strong ties forming is increased.

3. Malcolm Gladwell probably doesn’t understand how weak ties become strong ties. Look at his Twitter stream for the last two years. He barely uses Twitter. How would he understand how a retweet, @ reply, or blog comment can evolve into a friendship, a business partnership or a marriage? This is equivalent to a Hollywood script-writer scripting a film about Facebook without using or understanding it (oh hang on, I’ve already blogged about that).

4. The Internet has now come of age and it will be as good as the people who power it. If we want it to be a medium for finding a cure for Aids, then that’s what it will be. If, like the Amercian Tea Party movement, we want it to be a tool to organise against public education – then that’s also what it will be.

What do you think? Can Twitter, Facebook et al cause social change that might not otherwise be possible? Do ‘weak ties’ ever lead to remarkable actions?

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2 Responses to “Is the social web a network of ‘weak ties’?”

  1. Killian Stokes October 27, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    While I do like Malcolm Gladwell and I think he has a point about weak ties, the challenge he points to is that until now the internet or social networks etc haven’t yet produced lots of moves towards social change – sits in demonstrations etc however its only a matter of time and indeed with the power of video /you tube etc the internet has the power to connect lots of us around the world to one event in a real and strong way, say as Live Aid did through the medium of TV back in the 80s.

    However sites like Kiva.org and Donorschoose.org have it could be argued led to massive change – in terms of postings from these sites have caused thousands of people to act and to donate directly to support amazing school projects posted by teachers in the US (donorschoose.org) and to lend money to entrepreneurs in the developing world (kiva.org).

    Perhaps not a revolution in the old sense but sites like these are and will revolutionise how we give and will have a huge and direct positive impact in the lives of people in need all around the world, positive impact instigated by people in other parts of the world thanks to the power of the internet…

    • michaeltaggart October 28, 2010 at 9:07 am #

      Great points Killian and thanks for contributing. I’m not a spokesman for Gladwell but he makes the point in his article that instances of seemingly big action prompted by the social web are actually not as big as they seem at all.

      He uses the specific example, as you do, of being a donor – and cites the case of Sammer Bhatia whose struggle with acute myelogenous leukemia inspired an online campaign which lead to 25,000 people registering on a bone marrow donor database and a match for Bhatia being found.

      In that last case, Gladwell agrees it was a successful campaign. But he says the only erason it was a success was because “friends” on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms were only asked to do something incredibly quick (signing a register, spending a few hours in hospital during donation) and with very little personal risk. He argues this is nothing like the sort of harm political activists and agents of social change court.

      My view is that that activism and social media are not an ‘either/or’ – they can work together to create change – but you need committed people regardless of the social media. It’s not the tolls that make the change but they do, undeniably, connect people who can make change and who might not otherwise have met.

      As an aside, I also suspect there are probably some cases of people taking extreme and dangerous action because of their networks on social media.

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