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Social Media Reinvents Social Activism For Strong Relationships: My Critique Of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker Article

Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker states that the new tools of social media have failed to reinvent social activism. He wrote a long piece explaining why he believes that relationships formed within social media are weak relationships, and used examples from the Greensboro sit-ins, and the crisis in Moldova and Iran to support his position.

He argued that without real commitment social activism cannot exist because there's no real commitment to other individuals involved in a cause, and without that commitment in the face of the higher costs of getting involved people will drop out of a cause.

High Stakes Require Strong Relationships

Gladwell uses the sit-ins from Greensboro, NC as an example of social activism where high stakes were involved, people had to make strong commitments to the cause because the consequences of being involved were as high as physical danger and even death. And that those most involved in the sit-ins were supported by small networks of people who were connected through close relationships. Gladwell argues that because relationships formed online are loose relationships those relationships are not highly committed relationships, and any real requests for social action will fail because of the weak relationships formed within social media between people and organizations.

I agree with Gladwell, he was right, social media can be a medium where your ties to people are weak, but I also believe he misses an important factor with the use of social media. Most people have strong ties with a small group of friends, colleagues and family within their social networks. Those relationships are just as important today as they were in 1933 in the depths of the Great Depression, or in 1960 during the Greensboro sit-ins.

Collections Of Relationships

Rather than thinking of social media as a collection of weak relationships, I'd suggest we should think of social media as collection of different relationships. You have family, high school alumni, college alumni, former employees, childhood friends, friends of your kids, and while it was once easy to lose track of those friends, today with social media it is easier to keep in touch with those friends.

An individual will focus on those people they know best, family, close friends, and colleagues. But social media affords individuals with the ability to share experiences and social activism quickly across and between their friends close relationships. It's not that I convinced five hundred of my friends to do something, but that I convinced five of my friends to take action and those friends in turn convinced five of their friends, until sufficient momentum is built up that that the entire community is committed.

My experience in social media is that I have different kinds of relationships, I don't follow every word of everyone on my list of over 6000 twitter followers, rather I concentrate on the people I know best, and occasionally check in with people who I have loose connections, for the majority of people its impossible for me to keep in touch with over 6000 people. 

Sources of Creativity

I disagree with Gladwells's point that "Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information." I pay attention more to the life streams of the people I want to listen to, who are usually people I know, more than the people I don't know. They find content and information, and share that information with me, that's often the way I learn about what's going on in the world. As an aside, I read this Gladwell's post because it was retweeted by someone I know and meet with on a fairly regular basis.

Pitiful Social Media Evangelists

Gladwell states, "The evangelists of social media...seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960."

I'm sure if I asked 20 people who promote the use of social media for marketing for organizations, none of them would say that a friend in social media who you have never met is the same as someone you've known for 20 years. To make such a statement is just silly, and assumes a naivete on the part of many marketing communicators that's pitiful. Where's the evidence for such an idea?

He goes on to critique several charities on Facebook, for their use of social media to raise funds, especially the Save Darfur Coalition, suggesting $0.09 a member for 1,282,339 members is not enough. Well that's $115,410.51 that may never been collected if it wasn't for Facebook.

And Gladwell's criticism of the spokesperson for the coalition who said, "They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” Where he suggests that unless someone gives money there's no commitment misses an important part of the spokeperson's statement. The spokesperson said the members inform the community or volunteer. An hour of members time is certainly worth more than $0.09. And if informing the community results in revenue, then surely that information, perhaps spread by someone to people with whom they have close relationships within their personal network is going to have as much effect as the close relationships did in 1960. From support in the form of money, helping to raise funds, or taking a job with a refugee agency.

Gladwell is right, many social networks don't have hierarchies, and formal organizations can have more effect and power. However, I've joined and worked within formal organizations, and some times those formal organizations lose opportunities for organizing properly. That to me is a function of the individuals involved rather than all formal organizations being better at organizing. I think social networks give tools for the well organized to support their close friends easily. And one growth I've seen is the ability for people here in the States to build their own organizations using social networks easily. I'd suggest we should all look at how social media is so easily co-opted to form organizations.

The Social Media Bible

Gladwell goes on to claim that Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody,” is the bible of the social media movement. Sorry I disagree, and while it’s an important book, I don't think everyone has read it in the community. If there is one book that has had more influence, I'd suggest the Cluetrain Manifesto from 1998, or even Gladwell's own books.

When Gladwell wrote about the many weak relationships that exist in social networks I agreed with him, I even agreed that people should not expect high levels of commitment around social activism from such social media relationships.

I’m not critiquing Gladwell’s base assumptions about weak relationships in social media, but I do critique his assumption that social media cannot help social activism. Strong relationships can exist because of social media, and existing relationships can be stronger because of social media. And it is possible to activate and motivate a small community using social media.

I think Galdwell's article was a lost opportunity. I believe he did not look deeply enough into how strong relationships work within social media, and I suggest that if an organization is going to be successful in using social media for activism the organization has to understand they will only succeed when they facilitate and growth strong personal relationships that result in recruitment by other people who in turn have strong relationships and commitments.