Twitter, Facebook, and social activism: newyorker.com

Twitter, Facebook, and social activism: newyorker.com.

This article by Malcolm Gladwell makes a useful distinction between strong ties activism and weak ties activism. The former was always possible, the latter only really viable with the coming of the social web. Activists with strong ties have real, face to face friends. Online activism has to make do with the weak ties of friends on Facebook. Gladwell disparages weak ties activism as, effectively, activism for people who can’t be bothered to actually do it. He claims that rumours of the Twitter revolution in places like Iran have been greatly exaggerated.

I’d agree about the exaggeration. One cause of this which he doesn’t mention is the incentive journalists and editors have to add current buzzwords to well-established reporting tropes. Thus for example ‘crack addicts stole my iPad’ breathes new life into an otherwise dying formula. In the case of civil unrest in far-flung nations there is a great temptation to add the words Facebook or Twitter to the headline.I’d also agree that weak ties are, well, weak. There’s a danger of them being expected to accomplish more than they can reasonably be expected to.

Much of what passes as media comment on internet activism is little more than star-struck boosterism. But I think Gladwell is a little too negative about the potential for the social web to ‘change the world’. There are two areas in particular where worthwhile things seem to be happening.

First, in the area of activism, organisations like GetUp in Australia and Moveon in the US have had a fairly large impact on the political landscape. Certainly GetUp has filled a gap that would otherwise not have been filled in engaging dynamically with political issues and making it possible for groups of people to do things they never could have done prior to Web 2.0. For instance it is now common for GetUp to run political TV ads in prime time, flash-funded by its members all chipping in small amounts of cash to create a big effect. These microdonors don’t need to be best buddies with one another. They don’t need strong ties. They just need to be able to leverage the aggregated power their web-enabled weak ties give them. Weak ties do some political things very well. Interestingly these weak ties can also lead to the strengthening of strong ties. There is a deliberate strategy of encouraging local face to face meet ups, and it was claimed that before the last federal election 1 in 30 residents of Canberra, the national capital, was a GetUp member.

This brings us to the second way the social web can reasonably claim to be  changing the world. This is the use of weak ties to connect otherwise disconnected people to make practical differences collectively. Micro-credit organisations such as Kiva are linking lenders and borrowers in mutually beneficial ways and thus empowering the otherwise disempowered. The Ushahidi mapping platform is being used to monitor elections in Egypt, Brazil and Venezuela.  In these ways the social web helps committed people to do their activist work more effectively. Erik Hersman, the organisation’s operations director, says:

I don’t see too many governments being displaced or replaced by online cooperation alone. Trust, reputation and resources are just a few of the hurdles to overcome before that happens. Instead, I think we’re seeing the continuation of the refinement of mass movements, brought about by the inefficiencies in the system, which catch on faster and are enabled better online and then move offline for impact.

My own guess is that these new kinds of social movement and the new kinds of public association – enabled by internet and mobile phone technology –  are going to become ever more important. If this is so, the current views of Malcolm Gladwell may come to look an awful lot like the second stage of the time-honoured  method of assimilating ideas whose time has come. To paraphrase the trade unionist Nicholas Klein:

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

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