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:

New Monastics & Convergent Friends update

My workshop partner Wess Daniels just posted an update about the upcoming workshop at Pendle Hill. Here's the start. Click through to the full post to get a taste of what we're preparing.

Martin Kelley and I will be
leading a
weekend retreat at Pendle Hill in just a couple weeks (May 14-16)

and I'm starting to get really excited about it! Martin and I have been
collaborating a lot together over the past few months in preparation for
this weekend and I wanted to share a little more of what we have
planned for those of you who are interested in coming (or still on the
fence). During the weekend we will be encouraging conversations around
building communities, convergent Friends and how this looks in our local
meetings. I wanted to give the description of the weekend, some of the
queries we'll be touching on, and the outline for the weekend. And of
course, I want to invite all of you interested parties to join us!

Read the full post on Wess's blog

Movement for a New Society and the Old New Monastics

Robin wrote a lit­tle about the New Monas­tic move­ment in a plug for the Pen­dle Hill work­shop I’m doing with Wess Daniels this Fall. 

Here’s my work­ing the­o­ry: I think Lib­er­al Friends have a good claim to invent­ing the “new monas­tic” move­ment thir­ty years ago in the form of Move­ment for a New Soci­ety, a net­work of peace and anti-nuclear activists based in Philadel­phia that cod­i­fied a kind of “sec­u­lar Quak­er” decision-making process and trained thou­sands of peo­ple from around the world in a kind of engaged drop-out lifestyle that fea­tured low-cost com­mu­nal liv­ing arrange­ments in poor neigh­bor­hoods with part-time jobs that gave them flex­i­bil­i­ty to work as full-time com­mu­ni­ty activists. There are few activist cam­paigns in the 1970s and 1980s that weren’t touched by the MNS style and a less-ideological, more lived-in MNS cul­ture sur­vives today in bor­der­line neigh­bor­hoods in Philadel­phia and oth­er cities. The high-profile new monas­tics rarely seem to give any props to Quak­ers or MNS, but I’d be will­ing to bet if you sat in on any of their meet­ings the process would be much more inspired by MNS than Robert’s Rules of Order or any fif­teen cen­tu­ry monas­tic rule that might be cit­ed.

For a decade I lived in West Philly in what I called “the ruins of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety.” The for­mal struc­ture of MNS had dis­band­ed but many of its insti­tu­tions car­ried on in a kind of lived-in way. I worked at the remain­ing pub­lish­ing house, New Soci­ety Pub­lish­ers, lived in a land-trusted West Philly coop house, and was fed from the old neigh­bor­hood food coop and occa­sion­al­ly dropped in or helped out with Train­ing for Change, a revived train­ing cen­ter start­ed by MNS-co-founder (and Cen­tral Philadel­phia Meeting-member) George Lakey It was a tight neigh­bor­hood, with strong cross-connections, and it was able to absorb relat­ed move­ments with dif­fer­ent styles (e.g., a strong anar­chist scene that grew in the late 1980s). I don’t think it’s coin­ci­dence that some of the Philly emer­gent church projects start­ed in West Philly and is strong in the neigh­bor­hoods that have become the new ersatz West Philly as the actu­al neigh­bor­hood has gen­tri­fied.

So some ques­tions I’ll be wrestling with over the next six months and will bring to Pen­dle Hill:

  • Why haven’t more of us in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends adopt­ed this engaged lifestyle?
  • Why haven’t we been good at artic­u­lat­ing it all this time?
  • Why did the for­mal struc­ture of the Quaker-ish “new monas­ti­cism” not sur­vive the 1980s?
  • Why don’t we have any younger lead­ers of the Quak­er monas­ti­cism? Why do we need oth­ers to remind us of our own recent tra­di­tion?
  • In what ways are some Friends (and some fel­low trav­el­ers) still liv­ing out the “Old New Monas­tic” expe­ri­ence, just with­out the hype and with­out the buzz?

It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that the “new monas­ti­cism” isn’t sus­tain­able. At the very least Friends’ expe­ri­ences with it should be stud­ied to see what hap­pened. Is West Philly what the new monas­ti­cism looks like thir­ty years lat­er? The biggest dif­fer­ences between now and the hey­day of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety is 1) the Internet’s abil­i­ty to orga­nize and stay in touch in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent ways; and 2) the pow­er of the major Evan­gel­i­cal pub­lish­ing hous­es that are hyp­ing the new kids.

I’ll be look­ing at myself as well. After ten years, I felt I need­ed a change. I’m now in the “real world” – semi sub­ur­ban free­stand­ing house, nuclear fam­i­ly. The old new West Philly monas­ti­cism, like the “new monas­ti­cism” seems opti­mized for hip twenty-something sub­ur­ban kids who roman­ti­cized the grit­ty city. Peo­ple of oth­er demo­graph­ics often fit in, but still it was nev­er very scal­able and for many not very sus­tain­able. How do we bring these con­cerns out to a world where there are sub­urbs, fam­i­lies, etc?


RELATED READING: I first wrote about the sim­i­lar­i­ty between MNS and the Philadel­phia “New Monas­tic” move­ment six years ago in Peace and Twenty-Somethings, where I argued that Pen­dle Hill should take a seri­ous look at this new move­ment.

The peace of Christ for those with ears to hear

Over on Quak­er Oats Live, Cherice is fired up about tax­es again and propos­ing a peace wit­ness for next year:

My solu­tion: Quak­ers, Men­non­ites, Brethren, and whomev­er else wants to par­tic­i­pate refus­es to pay war tax­es for a few years, and we suf­fer the con­se­quences. I think we should cam­paign for a war-tax-free 2010 in all Quak­er meet­ings and Mennonite/Brethren/etc. com­mu­ni­ties. What are they going to do – throw us all in jail? Maybe. But they can’t do that for­ev­er. No one wants to pay their tax­es for a bunch of Quak­ers and oth­er paci­fists to sit in jail for not pay­ing tax­es. It doesn’t make sense.

A com­menter chimes in with a warn­ing about Friends who were hit by heavy tax penal­ties a quar­ter cen­tu­ry ago. But I know of some­one who didn’t pay tax­es for twen­ty years and recent­ly vol­un­teered the infor­ma­tion to the Inter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice. The col­lec­tors were non­cha­lant, polite and sym­pa­thet­ic and set­tled for a very rea­son­able amount. If this friend’s expe­ri­ence is any guide, there’s not much dra­ma to be had in war tax resis­tance. These days, Cae­sar doesn’t care much.

What if our wit­ness was direct­ed not at the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment but at our fel­low Chris­tians? We could fol­low Quak­er founder George Fox’s exam­ple and climb the tallest tree we could find (real or metaphor­i­cal) and begin preach­ing the good news that war goes against the teach­ings of Jesus. As always, we would be respect­ful and char­i­ta­ble but we could reclaim the strong and clear voic­es of those who have trav­eled before us. If we felt the need for back­up? Well, I under­stand there are twenty-seven or so books to the New Tes­ta­ment sym­pa­thet­ic to our cause. And I have every rea­son to believe that the Inward Christ is still hum­ming our tune and burn­ing bush­es for all who have eyes to see and ears to lis­ten. Just as John Wool­man min­is­tered with his co-religionists about the sin of slav­ery, maybe our job is to min­is­ter to our co-religionists about war.

But who are these co-religionist neigh­bors of ours? Twen­ty years of peace orga­niz­ing and Friends orga­niz­ing makes me doubt we could find any large group of “his­toric peace church” mem­bers to join us. We talk big and write pret­ty epis­tles, but few indi­vid­u­als engage in wit­ness­es that involve any dan­ger of real sac­ri­fice. The way most of our estab­lished bod­ies couldn’t fig­ure out how to respond to a mod­ern day prophet­ic Chris­t­ian wit­ness in Tom Fox’s kid­nap­ping is the norm. When the IRS threat­ened to put liens on Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing to force resis­tant staffers to pay, the gen­er­al sec­re­tary and clerk said all sorts of sym­pa­thet­ic words of anguish (which they prob­a­bly even meant), then docked the employee’s pay any­way. There have been times when clear-eyed Chris­tians didn’t mind loos­ing their lib­er­ty or prop­er­ty in ser­vice to the gospel. Ear­ly Friends called our emu­la­tion of Christ’s sac­ri­fice the Lamb’s War, but even sev­en years of real war in the ancient land of Baby­lo­nia itself hasn’t brought back the old fire. Our meet­ing­hous­es sit quaint, with own­er­ship deeds untouched, even as we wring our hands won­der­ing why most remain half-empty on First Day morn­ing.

But what about these emerg­ing church kids?: all those peo­ple read­ing Shane Clai­borne, mov­ing to neigh­bor­hoods in need, orga­niz­ing into small cells to talk late into the night about prim­i­tive Chris­tian­i­ty? Some of them are actu­al­ly putting down their can­dles and pre­ten­tious jar­gon long enough to read those twenty-seven books. Friends have a lot of accu­mu­lat­ed wis­dom about what it means the prim­i­tive Chris­t­ian life, even if we’re pret­ty rusty on its actu­al prac­tice. What shape would that wit­ness take and who would join us into that unknown but famil­iar desert? What would our move­ment even be called? And does it mat­ter?

—–

Any­one inter­est­ed in think­ing more on this should start sav­ing up their loose change ($200 com­muters) to come join C Wess Daniels and me this Novem­ber when we lead a work­shop on “The New Monas­tics and Con­ver­gent Friends” at Pen­dle Hill near Philadel­phia. Methinks I’m already start­ing to blog about it.

Sheehan thoughs over on Non​vi​o​lence​.org

Just a lit­tle note to every­one that I’ve blogged a cou­ple of posts over on Non​vi​o​lence​.org. They’re both based on “peace mom” Cindy Sheeran’s “res­ig­na­tion” from the peace move­ment yes­ter­day.
It’s all a bit strange to see this from a long-time peace activist per­spec­tive. The move­ment that Sheehan’s talk­ing about and now cri­tiquing is not move­ment I’ve worked with for the last fifteen-plus years. The orga­ni­za­tions I’ve known have all been housed in crum­bling build­ings, with too-old car­pets and fur­ni­ture lift­ed as often as not from going out of busi­ness sales. Money’s tight and careers poten­tial­ly sac­ri­ficed to help build a world of shar­ing, car­ing and under­stand­ing.
The move­ment Shee­han talks about is fueled by mil­lions of dol­lars of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party-related mon­ey, with cam­paigns designed to mesh well with Par­ty goals via the so-called “527 groups”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/527_group and oth­er indi­rect mech­a­nisms. Big Media likes to crown these orga­ni­za­tions as _the_ anti­war move­ment, but as Shee­han and Amy Good­man dis­cuss in today’s “Democ­ra­cy Now interview”:http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07%2F05%2F30%2F1343232, cor­po­rate media will end up with much of the tens of mil­lions of dol­lars can­di­dates are now rais­ing. Shee­han makes an impas­sioned plea for peo­ple to sup­port those grass­roots cam­paigns that aren’t sup­port­ed by the “peace move­ment” but this rein­forces the notion that its the mon­eyed inter­ests that make up the move­ment. I’m sure she knows bet­ter but it’s hard to work for so long and to make so many sac­ri­fices and still be so casu­al­ly dis­missed – not just me but thou­sands of com­mit­ted activists I’ve known over the years.
There are a few peace orga­ni­za­tions in that hap­py medi­um between toad­y­ing and pover­ty (nice car­pets, souls still intact) but it mys­ti­fies me why there isn’t a broad­er base of sup­port for grass­roots activism. I myself decid­ed to leave pro­fes­sion­al peace work almost a decade ago after the my Non​vi​o​lence​.org project raised such piti­ful sums. At some point I decid­ed to stop whin­ing about this phe­nom­e­non and just look for better-paying employ­ment else­where but it still fas­ci­nates me from a soci­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive.

On shoestrings and keepin’ on

There's some interesting follow-up on the Cindy Sheehan "resignation" (see yesterday's post). One fellow I corresponded with years ago gave a donation then sent an email urging us not to fall into despair. It's hard.
Go beyond Democratic Party fronts like MoveOne and you'll find the most of the peace movement is a ridiculously shoestring operation. Nonviolence.org's four month "ChipIn" fundraising campaign raised $50 per month but the sacrifice isn't just short-term--just try applying for a mainstream job with a resume chock full of social change work!
Michael Westmoreland-White over on the Levellers blog talks about "keeping going through the despair":http://levellers.wordpress.com/2007/05/30/needed-for-long-haul-peacemaking-a-spirituality-of-nonviolence/:
bq. This is a cautionary tale for the rest of us, including myself. Outrage, righteous indignation, anger, public grief, are all valid reactions to war and human rights abuses, but they will get us only so far. They may strain marriages and family life. They may lead to speech and action that is not in the spirit of nonviolence and active peacemaking. And, since imperialist militarism is a system (biblically speaking, a Power), it will resist change for the good. Work for justice and peace over the long haul requires spiritual discipline, requires deep roots in a spirituality of nonviolence, including cultivating the virtue of patience.
Michael's answer is specifically Christian but I think his advice to step back and attend to the roots of our activism is wise despite one's motivations.
Sheehan's retirement didn't stop her from "talking with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now this morning":http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/05/30/1343232. She talks about cash-starved peace activists and contrasts them with the tens of millions presidential candidates are raising, most of which will go to big media TV networks for ads. Sheehan says we need more than just an antiwar movement:
bq. Like, ending the Vietnam War was major, but people left the movement. It was an antiwar movement. They didn’t stay committed to true and lasting peace. And that’s what we really have to do.
More Cindy Sheehan reading across the blogosphere available via "Google":http://blogsearch.google.com/blogsearch?hl=en&q=cindy+sheehan&btnG=Search+Blogs and "Technorati":http://technorati.com/tag/cindy+sheehan.
And for those looking for a little good news check out the brand new site for the "Global Network for Nonviolence":http://gn-nonviolence.org/. I designed it for them as part of my "freelance design work":http://www.martinkelley.com but it's been a joy and a lot of fun to be working more closely with a good group of international activists again. Their "nonviolence links":http://gn-nonviolence.org/links.php page includes sites for some really committed grassroots peacemakers. This long-term peace work may not give us headlines in the New York Times but it's touched millions over the years. If humanity is ever going to grow into the kind of culture of peace Sheehan dreams of then we'll need a lot more wonderful projects like these.