Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in the New Yorker, titled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” is worth reading. It’s a thought-provoking analysis of what social media can and cannot do, or at least do well. At a time when many of us are absorbed in trying to stay abreast of the latest tech-savvy trends in business and culture, it’s a good idea to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the assorted social tools we now use.
Gladwell describes the kind of social activism that led the Civil Rights movement to success in the 1960s. He contrasts the intense commitment and precise organization of a handful of activists who pioneered lunch counter sit-ins, with the soft activism of Facebook, where, he notes, “the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.” He questions the influence of Twitter during the 2008 Iran election, quoting Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. … Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”
The key concept, according to Gladwell, is to recognize that social media have specific strengths:
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.
This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world.
Gladwell takes issue with claims made by New York University lecturer Clay Shirky, a prominent commentator on the social impact of new social media. Shirky is convinced that we are witnessing an epochal change akin to the original industrial revolution. In his blog, Shirky writes:
With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.
In response, Gladwell writes, “The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. … If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.”
Canadian internet expert Michael Geist followed up on Gladwell’s article with his own comments in the Toronto Star. He argued that there are appropriate roles for the “weak tie” activism of social media, and pointed to the recent success of individuals and NGOs around the world in affecting the final outcome of the recently finalized anti-counterfeiting trade agreement:
While digital advocacy alone was not responsible for these efforts, it played a crucial role, providing instant dissemination of leaked documents and expert analysis. The battle over ACTA may not be the equivalent of the fight for civil rights in the 1960’s, but the relative success in changing the terms of the agreement that was a top U.S. priority demonstrates the power of digital advocacy and the potential for weak ties and loosely organized groups to come together to influence global policy.
As commentators continue to parse the implications of new media, the rest of us will be on our toes, trying to keep, if not exactly abreast, at least in hailing distance of the cutting edge. Just as I’ve started to put up individual web sites for my listings (with a sticker on the lawn sign that says the equivalent of “123yourstreet.com”), I’ve learned that I’m still behind the curve… The latest thing is to put a bar code on your sign, that can be scanned by buyers on their iPhones, giving them an instant link to my web site. Once we’ve climbed onto this merry go round, there’s evidently no getting off.