Malcolm Gladwell has an intriguing article in the current New Yorker (subscription required), questioning the claims frequently made about the “revolutionary” power of social media, like Twitter or Facebook. Since it takes a subscription to access the article, I will quote some of the key parts here.
Jumping right to the main conclusion, Gladwell argues that the kind of concerted, extended action necessary to change well entrenched institutions requires strong ties, rather than the weak ties that social media create.
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.
This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. 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.
Gladwell presents some evidence that the role of Twitter in the Iranian demonstrations and protests in Moldava was far less than has been reported in the media. Effective evolutionary movements like those that arose during the heyday of civil rights actions require strong ties that enable the hierarchy and authority needed to hold and organize the actors over the time it takes to upset the status quo. Current social media fail to motivate people to the kind and level of commitments found in successful upheavals. The Save Darfur Coalition claims that about over a million people have “signed up,” but, as Gladwell notes, have donated a paltry nine cents a piece.
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.
Gladwell admits that social media have been responsible for mobilizing people in ways not possible before they became so ubiquitous. Using an example where a combination of web-based media enabled a New Yorker to recover a lost Sidekick cellphone, he quotes Clay Shirky, well known for his cheerleading stance on social media.
Shirky’s argument is that this is the kind of thing that could never have happened in the pre-Internet age—and he’s right. . . The story, to Shirky, illustrates “the ease and speed with which a group can be mobilized for the right kind of cause” in the Internet age.
Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. (my emphasis) If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.
Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, “What happens next?”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revoluci�n. ?
Sustainability requires a revolution, perhaps, a quiet one, but clearly much more than what is needed to recover a cell phone. The economic institutions that must be replaced are as entrenched or moreso than those that kept Jim Crow alive. Weak ties lack the sense of caring that are found in strong ties. Real friends truly care about each other. Weak ties and the media that enable them feed the need to do something, but as Gladwell noted, the action that comes forth goes no further than conforming with societal expectations. It is not authentic.
In the language of my book, social media are little more than a technological fix to the anomie and the loss of [strong] community and personal ties that current political economic policies and institutions produce. Change in the deep-seated norms and beliefs to align them with sustainability can come only with authentic caring for the Earth, all human beings, and other forms of life.