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 Savestmarys.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, Nonviolence.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.

Nonviolence.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 Nonviolence.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 Nonviolence.org

Just a little note to everyone that I’ve blogged a couple of posts over on Nonviolence.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 Nonviolence.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.

Cindy Sheehan “resigns”: It’s up to us now

Poor Cindy Sheehan, the famous anti-war mom who camped outside Bush’s Crawford Texas home following the death of her son in Iraq. News comes today that she’s all but “resigned from the protest movement”:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070529/ap_on_re_us/cindy_sheehan. She posted the following “on her Daily Kos blog”:http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2007/5/28/12530/1525
bq. The first conclusion is that I was the darling of the so-called left as long as I limited my protests to George Bush and the Republican Party. Of course, I was slandered and libeled by the right as a “tool” of the Democratic Party… However, when I started to hold the Democratic Party to the same standards that I held the Republican Party, support for my cause started to erode and the “left” started labeling me with the same slurs that the right used. I guess no one paid attention to me when I said that the issue of peace and people dying for no reason is not a matter of “right or left”, but “right and wrong.”
The sad truth is that she was used. Much of the power and money in the anti-war movement comes from Democratic Party connections. Her tragic story, soccer mom looks and articulate idealism made her a natural poster girl for an anti-Bush movement that has never really been as anti-war as it’s claimed.
Congressional Democrats had all the information they needed in 2002 to expose President Bush’s outlandish claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But they “authorized his war of aggression anyway”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_Resolution. More recently, Americans gave them a landslide vote of confidence in last November’s elections but still they step back from insisting on an Iraq pull-out. The Nonviolence.org archives are full of denunciations of President Clinton’s repeated missile attacks on places like the Sudan and Afghanistan; before reinventing himself as a earth-toned eco candidate, Al Gore positioned himself as the pro-war hawk of the Democratic Party.
Anti-war activists need to build alliances and real change will need to involve insiders of both major American political parties. But as long as the movement is fueled with political money it will be beholden to those interests and will ultimately defer to back-room Capital Hill deal-making.
I feel for Cindy. She’s been on a publicity roller coaster these past few years. I hope she finds the rest she needs to re-ground herself. Defeating war is the work of a lifetime and it’s the work of a movement. Sheehan’s witness has touched people she’ll never meet. It’s made a difference. She’s a woman of remarkable courage who’s pointing out the puppet strings she’s cutting as she steps off the stage. Hats off to you Cindy.


Nonviolence.org’s fundraising campaign ends in a few hours. In four months we’ve raised $150 which doesn’t even cover that period’s server costs. This project celebrates its twelfth year this fall and accurately “exposed the weapons of mass destruction hoaxes”:http://www.nonviolence.org/weapons_of_mass_destruction/ in real time as they were being thrust on a gullible Congress. Cindy signed off:
bq. Good-bye America …you are not the country that I love and I finally realized no matter how much I sacrifice, I can’t make you be that country unless you want it. It’s up to you now.
Sometimes I really have to unite with that sentiment.

Webb on SOTU: We owe them loyalty, we owe them sound judgment

I must be honest and admit that I’ve always found President Bush’s State of the Union speeches unbearable. The distortions and half-truths are infuriating and the unearned confidence of a draft-dodging rich kid turned failed military adventurer just sends my blood pressure through the roof. I wish I could be detached enough to listen at least to the art of fine speech-writing but the message gets in the way.

Better then to listen to the Democratic response, given by Senator James Web. The transcript is over on the NYTimes and the video is over on YouTube. Here’s a taste.

Like so many other Americans, today and throughout our history, we serve and have served, not for political reasons, but because we love our country. On the political issues ­ those matters of war and peace, and in some cases of life and death ­ we trusted the judgment of our national leaders. We hoped that they would be right, that they would measure with accuracy the value of our lives against the enormity of the national interest that might call upon us to go into harm’s way. We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us ­ sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it.

Worth a look: Josh Marshall over at TalkingPointsMemo.com had the neat idea to set up a YouTube group for people to give their own video responses to the State of the Union.

Warriors against the War

In the news:  more than 1,000 service members sign petition to end Iraq War (Stars and Stripes), organized by the Appeal for Redress campaign sponsored by a handful of military antiwar groups including Nonviolence.org alums Veterans for Peace. The simple petition reads:

As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.

Supporting the troops means making sure American lives aren’t being wasted in dead-end wars. Their service and their sacrifice has been too great to continue the lies that have fueled this conflict since the very beginning, starting with the mythical Saddam/Al Qaeda connection and the phantasmic weapons of mass destruction. The current escalation (euphemised as a “surge”) of troop levels is simply an escalation of a badly-run war plan. When will this all end?
*Update*: President Bush has admitted that the Iraq government “fumbled the executions.”:http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/17/washington/17prexy.html. Meanwhile, the UN puts the “2006 Iraqi death toll at 34,000”:http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/17/world/middleeast/17iraq.html. When will Bush admit he’s fumbled this whole war?

Christian peacemaker Teams News

On Saturday, November 26, 2005 four members of “Christian peacemakers Teams”:www.cpt.org were abducted in iraq. On March 20th the body of American Quaker Tom Fox was found; on March 23rd, the remaining three hostages were freed by U.S. and British military forces.
Here at Nonviolence.org, we have always been impressed and highly supportive of the deep witness of the Christian peacemakers Teams. Their members have represented the best in both the peace and Christian movements, consistently putting themselves in danger to witness the gospel of peace. Not content to write letters or stand on pickett lines in safe western capitals, they go to the frontlines of violence and proclaim a radical alternative.
While we can be grateful for the release of the three remaining hostages, we should continue to remember the 43 foreign hostages still being held in iraq and the 10-30 iraqis reportedly taken hostage each and every day. As iraq slips into full-scale civil war we must also organize against the war-mongerers, both foreign and internal and finde ways of standing alongside those iraqis who want nothing more than peace and freedom.

Here’s links to recent articles on the situation: https://delicious.com/martin_kelley/news.cpt-four.foxmemorial

And a personal note from Nonviolence.org’s Martin Kelley: I myself am a Christian and Quaker and one of our folks, Tom Fox, of Langley Hill (Virginia) Friends Meeting is among the hostages. I don’t know Tom personally but over the last few days I’ve learned we have many Friends in common and they have all testified to his deep committment to peace. Some of the links above are more explicitly Quaker than most things I post to Nonviolence.org, but they give perspective on why Tom and his companions would see putting themselves in danger as an act of religious service. I am grateful for Tom’s current witness in iraq–yes, even as a hostage–but I certainly hope he soon comes back to his family and community and that the attention and witness of these four men’s ordeal helps to bring the news of peace to streets and halls of Baghdad, Washington, London and Ottawa.

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