Gladwell and strong tie social media networks

A lot of peo­ple, include Jeanne Burns over on Quak­erquak­er, are talk­ing about Mal­colm Gladwell’s lat­est New York­er arti­cle, “Small Change: Why the Rev­o­lu­tion Will Not Be Tweet­ed”.

Mal­colm Gladwell’s modus operan­di is to make out­ra­geous­ly counter-intuitive claims that peo­ple will talk about enough that they’ll buy his boss’s mag­a­zine, books and bobble-head like­ness­es. I find him lik­able and divert­ing but don’t take his claims very seri­ous­ly. He’s a lot like Wired Magazine’s Chris Ander­son, his some­times spar­ring part­ner, which isn’t sur­pris­ing as they work for the same mag­a­zine empire, Conde Nast Pub­li­ca­tions.

In his arti­cle, Glad­well takes a lot of pot­shots at social media. It’s easy to do. He picks Clay Shirky, anoth­er New York “Big Idea” guy as his rhetor­i­cal straw­man now, claim­ing Shirky’s book “Here Comes Every­body” is the “bible of social-media move­ment.” Read­ing Glad­well, you kind of wish he’d get out of the echo box of circle-jerk New York Big Talk­ers (just get­ting out of the Conde Nast building’s cafe­te­ria would be a good start).

Gladwell’s cer­tain­ly right in that most of what pass­es for activism on Twit­ter and Face­book is ridicu­lous. Click­ing a “Like” but­ton or chang­ing your pro­file image green doesn’t do much. He makes an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between “weak ties” (Face­book “friends” who aren’t friends; Twit­ter cam­paigns that are risk-free) and “strong ties.” He cites the Civ­il Rights move­ment as a strong-tie phe­nom­e­non: the peo­ple who put them­selves on the line tend­ed to be those with close friends also putting them­selves on the line.

What Glad­well miss­es is strong-tie orga­niz­ing going on in social media. A lot of what’s hap­pen­ing over on Quak­erQuak­er is pret­ty strong-tie – it’s trans­lat­ing to work­shops, arti­cles, and is just one of a num­ber of impor­tant net­works that are form­ing. Peo­ple are find­ing each oth­er and mak­ing real con­nec­tions that spill out into the real world. It’s not that online orga­nizes cre­ates real world changes, or even the reverse. Instead, under the right cir­cum­stances they can feed into each oth­er, with each com­po­nent mag­ni­fy­ing the other’s reach.

One exam­ple of non-hierarchical involved social media is how Quak­er blog­gers came togeth­er to explain Tom Fox’s motives after his kid­nap­ping. It didn’t have any effect on the kid­nap­pers, obvi­ous­ly, but we did reach a lot of peo­ple who were curi­ous why a Friend might choose such a per­son­al­ly dan­ger­ous form of Chris­t­ian wit­ness. This was all done by inter-related groups of peo­ple with no bud­get and no orga­ni­za­tion­al chart. But these things don’t have to be quite so life-and-death.

A more recent exam­ple I’ve been able to see up close is the way my wife’s church has orga­nized against dioce­san attempts to shut it down: a core group of lead­ers have emerged; they share pow­er, divide up roles and have been wag­ing an orga­nized cam­paign for about 2.5 years now. One ele­ment of this work has been the Savest​marys​.org blog. The website’s only impor­tant because it’s been part of a real-world social net­work but it’s had an influ­ence that’s gone far beyond the hand­ful of peo­ple who write for it. One of the more sur­pris­ing audi­ences have been the many staff at the Dioce­san head­quar­ters who vis­it every day – a small group has tak­en over quite a bit of men­tal space over there!

It’s been inter­est­ing for me to com­pare Quak­erQuak­er with an ear­li­er peace project of mine, Non​vi​o​lence​.org, which ran for thir­teen years start­ing in 1995. In many ways it was the big­ger site: a larg­er audi­ence, with a wider base of inter­est. It was a pop­u­lar site, with many vis­its and a fair­ly active bul­letin board for much of it’s life. But it didn’t spawn work­shop or con­fer­ences. There’s no “move­ment” asso­ci­at­ed with it. Dona­tions were min­i­mal and I nev­er felt the sup­port struc­ture that I have now with my Quak­er work.

Non​vi​o​lence​.org was a good idea, but it was a “weak tie” net­work. QuakerQuaker’s net­work is stronger for two rea­sons that I can iden­ti­fy. The obvi­ous one is that it’s built atop the orga­niz­ing iden­ti­ty of a social group (Friends). But it also speaks more direct­ly to its par­tic­i­pants, ask­ing them to share their lives and offer­ing real-world oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­ac­tion. So much of my blog­ging on Non​vi​o​lence​.org was Big Idea thoughts pieces about the sit­u­a­tion in Bosnia – that just doesn’t pro­vide the same kind of imme­di­ate per­son­al entre.

Mal­colm Glad­well min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship struc­ture of activist orga­ni­za­tions, where lead­er­ship and pow­er is in con­stant flux. He like­wise min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship of social media net­works. Yes, any­one can pub­lish but we all have dif­fer­ent lev­els of vis­i­bil­i­ty and influ­ence and there is a fil­ter­ing effect. I have twenty-five years of orga­nized activism under my belt and fif­teen years of online orga­niz­ing and while the tech­nol­o­gy is very dif­fer­ent, a lot of the social dynam­ics are remark­ably similar.

Glad­well is an hired employ­ee in one of the largest media com­pa­nies in the world. It’s a very struc­tured life: he’s got edi­tors, pub­lish­ers, copy­ed­i­tors, proof­read­ers. He’s a cog in a com­pa­ny with $5 bil­lion in annu­al rev­enue. It’s not real­ly sur­pris­ing that he doesn’t have much direct expe­ri­ence with effec­tive social net­works. It’s hard to see how social media is com­ple­ment­ing real world grass­roots net­works from the 40th floor of a mid-town Man­hat­tan skyscraper.

Relat­ed Reading:

Doink Doink/Chunk Chunk/Bomp Bomp

As the evi­dence accu­mu­lates on the Follieri/Galante church-for-beach-house devel­op­er scan­dal, it’s become some­thing of a par­lor game around the kitchen table to spec­u­late on who will play all the char­ac­ters in the upcom­ing mini-series. It’s only a mat­ter of time real­ly. We’ve got a glam Euro­trash huck­ster, a Hol­ly­wood actress, the Sopranos-like mob vice pres­i­dent, Bill Clin­ton shady deal­ings with his all-but-pedophile drink­ing bud­dies – and of course the Dio­cese of Camden’s Bish­op Galante and at least one dioce­san priest with a fond­ness for play­ing dress-up. It will only become more truth-is-stranger-than-fiction when a few more details work their way from open secret to FBI doc­u­men­ta­tion and NY Post headlines. 

So while it’s not a sur­prise, there is a cer­tain sat­is­fac­tion in the lat­est media rumor that “Law & Order” is plan­ning one of their clas­sic “ripped from the head­lines” drama­ti­za­tion of the scandal:

Raffaello’s arrest was and still is the buzz in New York City’s social circles.…He was the ulti­mate con man; hand­some, rich, smooth and with a celebri­ty girl­friend to make him seem legit. I’m sure this will be the highest-rated Law & Order episode next season.

There’s enough angles to this sto­ry to fill an entire sea­son of tele­vi­sion so we don’t know how promi­nent the Bishop’s part will be. But L&O cre­ator Dick Wolf grew up an altar boy at St. Patrick’s cathe­dral in New York and the L&O cos­tume depart­ment has more cler­i­cal out­fits that Raf­fael­lo Follieri’s clos­et. Wolf rarely miss­es the chance to throw a priest into the script. Whole sea­sons of the show were devot­ed to ripped-from-the-headlines pieces on the priest/bishop sex abuse scan­dal in the ear­ly 2000s and I’m sure a follow-up look at the web of finan­cial fraud fueled (or at least jus­ti­fied) by the set­tle­ment pay­outs would be a big rat­ings hit.

I just wish Lennie Briscoe was still around to make the col­lar. BOMP BOMP.

The Andrew Walton Idiot Defense

Please read Galante and Fol­lieri: the Bish­op and the Con Man, which lays out the details men­tioned in this post.

The Dio­cese of Cam­den is in fran­tic spin con­trol mode after yesterday’s rev­e­la­tions that Bish­op Galante per­son­al­ly received $400,000
from high fly­ing Euro­trash con man Raf­fae­lo Fol­lieri for the sale of a
beach house the Bish­op had been unable to unload. Follieri’s the guy
who’s been try­ing to buy up Catholic church prop­er­ties across the
coun­try while mak­ing out with his Hol­ly­wood girl­friend on San Tropez
and par­ty­ing it up with Bill Clinton’s sleezy billionaire

It seems like a pret­ty clear cut case. Galante had his hand in Follieri’s cook­ie jar.
Sold his beach house to the guy who stood to prof­it most from the
Bishop’s plan to sell off half of South Jersey’s church­es. Old­est story
in the book. Give him the cell next to Follieri’s and they can rem­i­nisce about
the good old days (NSFW).

I’ve been won­der­ing just how the Dio­cese would try to spin this story
as it waits for fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tors to come knock­ing at the door. And
today the offi­cial Spokesper­son in Charge of Fairy Tales called up all the papers. Ladies and gen­tle­men, we present you with:

The Andrew Wal­ton Idiot Defense

Turns out some­one at the Vat­i­can called some­one at the
Dioce­san offices back in 2004 telling them to sell to Fol­lieri. That’s
it. No one can remem­ber who made the call. No one can remem­ber who took
the call. For all we know Fol­lieri filled his mouth with cot­ton balls
and did his best Mar­lon Bran­do imi­ta­tion from the pay phone across the street. 

The Arch­dio­ce­ses in Boston, New York, Newark and else­where told Fol­lieri they had enough bridges thank you very much, but poor Grand­pa Joe was con­fused and start­ed lend­ing him priests and giv­ing him the keys to the beach house.

How could any­one imag­ine that Fol­lieri was a crook? He seemed like any
oth­er Moth­er Tere­sa choir boy with his $10,000 suits, New York penthouse,
hero­in habit, con­vict­ed mob asso­ciates, San Tropez week­ends and expensively-maintained Hol­ly­wood girl­friend. “Nobody was aware of prob­lems with Mr. Fol­lieri or his com­pa­ny at that time.” Yeah right. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody. And I’m the wid­ow of the late John Paul II, recent­ly deceased Pres­i­dent of the Vat­i­can, with frozen assets in Nige­ria I’d like your help in secur­ing. Please email me back at your ear­li­est con­ve­nience Andy Wal­ton, I know you won’t be disappointed.

The Quaker time capsule

I’m read­ing Bill Taber’s fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry of Ohio Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends called The Eye of Faith. Like any good his­to­ry there’s a lot of the present in there. There’s a strong feel­ing of deja-vu to the scenes of Friends in con­flict and var­i­ous char­ac­ters come to life as much for their foibles as their strength of char­ac­ter (there’s more than a few blog­gers echoed there). I’m now a few years into the sec­ond great sep­a­ra­tion, the Wilburite/Gurneyite split that brewed for years before erupt­ing in 1854.

I’m not one of those Friends who bemoan the var­i­ous schisms. The diver­si­ty of those call­ing them­selves Friends today is so great that it’s hard to imag­ine them ever hav­ing stayed part of the same body. Only a strong author­i­tar­i­an con­trol could have pre­vent­ed the sep­a­ra­tions and even then, large mass­es of the “los­ing” par­ty would have sim­ply left and regrouped else­where: the only real dif­fer­ence is that one par­ty stops using the Quak­er name. Here in South Jer­sey, where the only Gur­neyite meet­ing wasn’t rec­og­nized by either Philadel­phia year­ly meet­ing for almost a hun­dred years, we’ve got dozens of Methodist “meet­ing hous­es” with grave­yards full of old Quak­er fam­i­ly names. Fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ries could be writ­ten of Friends who didn’t both­er to squab­ble over meet­ing­house deeds and sim­ply decid­ed to con­gre­gate under anoth­er banner.

One con­cept I’m chew­ing on is that of the “rem­nant.” As I under­stand it, the doc­trine comes large­ly from Rev­e­la­tion 12 and is used by small theologically-conservative Chris­t­ian sects to explain why their small size isn’t a prob­lem; it’s kind of like Mom say­ing it’s bet­ter to do the right thing than to be pop­u­lar. When the rem­nant com­mu­ni­ty is a rel­a­tive­ly iso­lat­ed locale like Bar­nesville, there’s also the image of the Land That Time For­got, the place where the old time ways has come down to us most ful­ly intact. There’s truth to the pre­serv­ing pow­er of iso­la­tion: lin­guists claim the Ozark hill­bil­ly accent most clear­ly mir­rors Shakespeare’s. But Ohio Friends aren’t sim­ply Jed Clampett’s Quak­er cousins.

Like most rur­al Quak­er year­ly meet­ings, Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive has lost much of its mem­ber­ship over the last hun­dred years. I don’t have sta­tis­tics but it seems as if a good per­cent­age of the active mem­bers of the year­ly meet­ing hail from out­side south­east­ern Ohio and a great many are con­vinced Friends. This echoes the most sig­nif­i­cant change in U.S. Quak­erism in the past fifty years: the shift from a self-perpetuating com­mu­ni­ty with strong local cus­toms and an almost eth­nic sense of self, to a soci­ety of con­vinced believers.

The keen sense of self-sufficiency and iso­la­tion that held togeth­er tight-knit Quak­er com­mu­ni­ties over the cen­turies are large­ly non-sustainable now. In our media-saturated lives even Bar­nesville teens can get the lat­est Hol­ly­wood gos­sip and New York fash­ions in real time. Yes it’s pos­si­ble to ban the TV and live as a media her­mit in a com­mune some­where, but even that only gets you so far. Once upon a time, not so long ago, a Friend could sit­u­ate them­selves in the wider Quak­er uni­verse sim­ply by com­par­ing fam­i­ly trees and school ties but that’s becom­ing less impor­tant all the time. For those of us who enter into the Soci­ety of Friends as adults – majori­ties in many year­ly meet­ings now – there’s a sense of choice, of don­ning the clothes. We play at being Quak­er until voila!, some mys­ti­cal alchem­i­cal process hap­pens and we iden­ti­fy as Quak­er – even if we’re not always quite so made-over into Quak­er­ness as we imag­ine ourselves. 

At the Ohio ses­sions a few Friends real­ly loved Wess Daniel’s state­ment that “A tra­di­tion that los­es the abil­i­ty to explain itself becomes an emp­ty form” (see his wrap-up post here). One Ohio Friend said he had heard it pos­tu­lat­ed that iso­lat­ed and inward-focused com­mu­ni­ties like Ohio Con­ser­v­a­tive were God’s method of pre­serv­ing the old ways against the onslaught of the mod­ernist age (with its mock­ing dis­be­lief) until they could be rein­tro­duced to the wider world in a more for­giv­ing post-modernist era. Looked at that way, Quak­erism isn’t a quaint rel­ic in need of the same botox/bleach blond “NOW!” makeover every oth­er spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion is get­ting. Think of it instead as a time cap­sule ready to be opened. An inter­est­ing the­o­ry. Are we ready to look at this pecu­liar thing we’ve dug up and reverse-engineer it back into meaningfulness?


Kirk W. over at Street Cor­ner Soci­ety emailed me that he had recent­ly put the Jour­nal of Ann Bran­son online. She fea­tures heav­i­ly in the mid­dle part of Taber’s book, which is the sto­ry of Con­ser­v­a­tive Ohio find­ing its own iden­ti­ty. Kirk sug­gests, and I agree, that her jour­nal might be con­sid­ered one of the arti­facts of the Ohio time cap­sule. I hope to find some time to read this in the not-too-distant future.

“Food for Fire” workshop at Powell House

In ear­ly Feb­ru­ary I’m lead­ing a young adult work­shop up at New York Year­ly Meeting’s “Pow­ell House”: I don’t have any desire to get into the “spir­i­tu­al work­shop cir­cuit,” but I was asked and it seemed like an oppor­tu­ni­ty to gath­er some inter­est­ing folks to talk about what we hunger for. The work­shop is called “Food for Fire: Break­ing into the Pow­er of Quak­erism” (already regret­ting the “break­ing in” metaphor – shouldn’t it be “bro­ken in by?”).
I hope that some of the extend­ed Quak­er Ranter fam­i­ly will be able to make it out. This could be a kind of Mid-Atlantic/New Eng­land gath­er­ing of what­ev­er this of infor­mal movement/network is. Because this is a work­shop mod­el I am expect­ed to impart knowl­edge but while I’ll come with an worked-out agen­da, I’m hap­py to loosen and/or toss it aside if need­ed. The work­shop description:
bq.. Many of the clas­sic themes of Quak­erism speak to the con­di­tion of a world wracked by con­sumerism, war, big­otry and envi­ron­men­tal dis­re­gard. Friends have a his­to­ry of unit­ing truth and love and turn­ing it into action. We’ll reach into the Quak­er attic to dust off gospel order, plain liv­ing, trav­el­ing min­istry, prophet­ic wit­ness; we’ll try them on and see how they fit into our expe­ri­ences of the liv­ing Spir­it. There will be plen­ty of time to share sto­ries in small groups and togeth­er. How are our month­ly meet­ings doing rec­og­niz­ing the gifts of min­istry and ser­vice among younger Friends? How are Friends doing spread­ing the good news of the Quak­er way? There is a great peo­ple to be gath­ered still but how can we enter into the faith­ful­ness required? Jesus came up the fish­er­men and said “Come, fol­low me;” what would we do if we got that call? Like any pro­grammed Quak­er event the work­shop is real­ly an excuse to assem­ble Friends togeth­er in prayer and faith­ful­ness to God. The most impor­tant thing we could do this week­end is build friend­ships: friend­ships of sup­port, mutu­al account­abil­i­ty, and peer men­tor­ship. Friends from all branch­es of Quak­erism wel­come, as are the newest of seekers.
p. The price is $180 for the week­end (reg­is­tra­tion form) but if that’s a bur­den then try to get your meet­ing to pay – I sus­pect they’ll be hap­py to see that you’re show­ing an inter­est in Quak­erism. I’ll be dri­ving up from South Jer­sey and will prob­a­bly be able to pick up folks from Philly & New York. Email me if you have or need a ride from oth­er points and I’ll try to con­nect you with oth­er travelers.
If you’re too old or too impa­tient to wait for Sec­ond Month to roll around, pick up Bri­an Drayton’s new book On Liv­ing with a Con­cern for Gospel Min­istry and read that instead. Yes, I plugged it five days ago and yes, my pay­check comes from the pub­lish­er – but I’ve now now read the first chap­ter and it real­ly is that good. Read­ing it feels like putting that soon-to-be-favorite pop album on the turntable for the first time. Where were you when you first heard Sgt Pep­pers? (for the YAFs in the audi­ence: yes I’m being sil­ly with the Bea­t­les ref­er­ence; if you remem­ber first putting that album on a turntable in 1967 then this isn’t your workshop!).

Bulldozing the U.N.

Pres­i­dent Bush has nom­i­nat­ed a “foe of the Unit­ed Nations to be its U.S. ambassador”: Ten years ago he declared: “There’s no such thing as the Unit­ed Nations,” and went on to say “If the U.N. sec­re­tary build­ing in New York lost 10 sto­ries, it wouldn’t make a bit of dif­fer­ence.” This is a fel­low who called his role in with­drawl­ing the U.S. sig­na­ture on the treaty rat­i­fy­ing the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court “the hap­pi­est moment of my gov­ern­ment service”: The Guardian reports that “fought arms con­trol agree­ments, a strength­en­ing of the bio­log­i­cal weapons con­ven­tion and the com­pre­hen­sive test ban treaty”:,12271,1432701,00.html?gusrc=rss. With his nom­i­na­tion, the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues its course of uni­la­te­ri­al­ism and open con­tempt for the world com­mu­ni­ty. Not a good way to build a last peace.