Gladwell on Social Media and Activism

By Alexis C. Madrigal

I really like Malcolm Gladwell's new piece on digital political organizing.

It's got an excellent structure, alternating scenes of the lunch counter protests of the 1960s with ideas about the loose social groups that activists attempt to catalyze on Facebook and Twitter. His big point is weak-tie networks don't have the dedication and structure to take on an established power structure. Martin Luther King, Jr, he notes, had a one million dollar budget and 100 staff members on the ground when he got to Birmingham.

I found myself surprised at how much I liked the piece. I'm a big fan of Clay Shirky, whose various writings about the potential of the Internet as an organizing platform would seem to run directly contrary to Gladwell's thesis.

Certainly, the strong form of his argument -- that Twitter and Facebook make it harder to organize -- seems unsupported (at least in this article). But I can get behind a weaker form of the idea. Communication technologies are often lauded as the key to unlock our societal shackles even if they actually reinforce existing power structures -- and Gladwell does an excellent job pointing that out.

So, I think we can read Gladwell's piece as a fairly specific indictment of the current uses of the current generation of tools. Truth is, very few major activism projects succeed through Facebook or Twitter. Shirky would totally agree with that, I think. And in cases where they seem to have helped, it's quite difficult to quantify how much, if at all. The explicit compare-and-contrast with Birmingham and the broader civil rights movement throws the possibility that we're diminishing and deracinating activism into stark relief, and I think that's a good thing.

But there are two threads of his story, in particular, that leave a lot to be desired.

First, a smaller quibble. Gladwell defines Twitter like this, "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." But the thing about Twitter, at least for me, is that I *end up* meeting the people that I interact with most closely. Twitter acts as a kind of human recommendation engine in which I am the algorithm. In person, I've met Clay Shirky himself, Tim Maly, Robin Sloan, and at least 10 more -- and I've edited dozens of folks that I know exclusively through the service. What Twitter lacks in corporeal contact, I think it makes up in longevity. I've been watching some people's minds work on the service for years. Every day I see their faces in my feed. To label these weak ties is just inaccurate. And it makes me wonder, can't we know people through their writing? Is face-to-face contact the only way to build strong ties?

University of Maryland-Baltimore sociologist Zeynep Tufecki also points out that, as in my case, lots of weak ties beget some strong ties.

"The relationship between weak and strong ties is one of complementarity and support, not one of opposition. Gladwell has written about weak and strong ties before and continues a tradition of contrasting them as ontological opposites, somehow opposing and displacing each other," Tufecki writes on her blog Technosociology. "That is a widespread conceptual error and rests upon an inadequate understanding of these concepts. Large pools of weaker ties are crucial to being able to build robust networks of stronger ties -- and Internet use is a key to this process."

Second, the most serious overextension of the argument is that "networks" don't have leadership or organization. Gladwell writes:

Because networks don't have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can't think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

This feels thin. Sure, Facebook and Twitter don't have lines of authority per se, but they are not the entire universe of social enterprises online. What about Linux development? Or mathematical problem solving at MathOverflow? Or the Obama campaign's efforts? Or all the little social spaces online where people come together to push for an idea or a project, like Greater Greater Washington?

To distill, who says online social networks can't have leadership, strategy, and clear lines of authority? Even if we said that no current effort rises to the level of a sit-in, I wouldn't bet against powerful movements developing through social media over the next decade.

People are still learning how to organize online. The tools are new. But perhaps what we can take from Gladwell's piece is that we need a little more bravery and dedication to go with our whiz and bang new stuff.

Thanks to Zack Sherwood for the pointer to Tufecki's work.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/09/gladwell-on-social-media-and-activism/63623/