The fall of Corzine, in the New Yorker

The fall of Corzine, in the New Yorker

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News Desk: Corzine’s Downfall
The collapse this week of the broker-dealer MF Global and the comeuppance of its chief executive Jon Corzine, who resigned Friday, have been and will be put to many political and rhetorical purposes....

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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:

Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”

Just fin­ished a quick read of Mal­colm Gladwell’s “The Tip­ping Point: How Lit­tle Things Can Make a Big Dif­fer­ence.” I remem­ber devour­ing some of the orig­i­nal pieces in _The New Yorker_ and was thrilled when a friend loaned me a copy of the book.

Con­tin­ue read­ing