‘The Revolution will not be Tweeted’ | Real Sacrifice will never happen online

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.


4 responses to “‘The Revolution will not be Tweeted’ | Real Sacrifice will never happen online”

  1. Proud to claim Malcolm as a pseudo-New Yorker. Though, this whole article would make more sense if someone would tell me what Twitter is.

  2. inthewondertime

    Although very much appreciating and agreeing with the critical overtone and skeptical sentiments here, can’t help but guess the one receiving the call that a matching tissue type was found wouldn’t likely be cursing social networks or naming donations as a pseudo sacrifice. Stoked to attend this upcoming October Apple event… keen to de-construct and further understand the purpose of casually tossed terms like ‘real’ and ‘never’. ~alison.

  3. Yes, online activism feels flimsy compared to, say, being part of a crowd at a demo. Old style activism is costly in more ways than one and I suspect that most people are too preoccupied with securing sufficient income to much stick their necks out for a cause. Oh that there were a citizens income!

  4. Going to be debating all this at the next Apple event. Spread the word, and see you all there!