Excellent piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, casting a sceptical eye over the optimistic view that social networks can and do lead to increased social action. His argument is not that they cannot have a good impact, but that the sort of impact they might have is very different from the hard work of political activism that brought about the end to segregation.
Old style activism depended on ‘strong ties’ – people who probably knew one another, and were very committed to a single cause, with their lives and values tied up in it. Whereas…
The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.
But weak ties rarely lead to high-risk activism. Why? Because high-risk activism is hard. Gladwell notes the example of a bone-marrow campaign which went viral through social networks:
Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.
His conclusion is something we need to take careful note of:
Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.
For an community committed to change, to conversion – whatever that means – that’s an important lesson. Real sacrifice will never happen online.
This is actually going to be part of the focus of the next ‘Apple‘ event on 13th October: Dr Luke Bretherton looking at Social Media and Social Action. More details soon, but put the date in the diary – it’s going to be excellent.