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.