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.