Social Media, Social Activism, Social Good

An extraction from the blog of Chris Hughes –

“One of Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite activities is taking a contrarian position on a popular topic.  He learned early on that it’s a very effective way of garnering attention, regardless of the merit of the argument.  Sometimes he’s right on, like with his most recent book Outliers.  But unfortunately at other times, like with his piece in the New Yorker this week, he’s not.

This week he takes on the “social media evangelists” who he believes wrongly promote the value of social media in political organizing.  While I see hyperbole about the power of social media every day, his piece seems to take a convenient and superficial view rather than actually venturing to understand what is happening online.

Gladwell’s argument has two key points: social media activism motivates people to do things that don’t involve real sacrifice and social media is not “about hierarchical organization.”

For a piece that uses the term social media so often, you would expect a simple definition of the term.

His inability to provide one is the foundational error of his first argument.  Gladwell doesn’t seem to have realized that the networks that we use — whether it’s email, Facebook, Twitter, or something else —  are fundamentally communication networks.  These are the places where we talk about what we’re doing, what we’re interested in, and yes, what causes we support.  Clicking a “like” button on Facebook or “follow” on Twitter is the equivalent of saying, “I believe in this issue.”

In the pre-social media world, there was no way to say publicly I support this cause. The introduction of technologies that enable people to communicate their support more broadly does not mean that they are taking less action.  Gladwell mistakes this statement of support as the only type of activism these networks provide.

Few are naïve enough to believe that saying “I care about the Darfur conflict” (to use one of Gladwell’s examples) solves the issue.  It’s a public statement of support, an indication that a person is willing to help.  Just because someone says they support a cause does not mean they are not willing to take further action.

If anything, the technology that now exists makes it easier for people to find and connect with others who share their same passions.  We saw this in the Obama campaign where hundreds of thousands of people used online tools like My.BarackObama.com to self-organize.  We see this for a long tail of popular causes on sites like MeetUp where thousands of people connect each day.  We see this in the explosion of the Tea Party, where social media is arguably being used more effectively to build a movement than anywhere else.

All that said, Gladwell’s point that networking systems are not sufficient for organizing political organizing is much more apt.  Networks themselves aren’t enough to solve complex political problems.  Certain tasks like product design or high-level political strategy need to be set by a person or set of persons with authority.  The best networks enable people to come together, communicate with one another effectively, and devise a system that invests a leader with the authority to set an agenda to achieve the group’s goals.

This combination of people-powered networking with a superstructure of experts is the structure we’re endeavoring to build for the social sector with Jumo.   As a start-up designing our beta platform, we embrace the importance and expertise of organizations working for global change (NGOs, non-profits, government programs), but also believe that these organizations will only be stronger if they have a solid network of supporters and activists behind them.

It’s unfortunate that Gladwell got one of his points so right while getting the other so wrong.” – Chris Hughes

A similar post… Can You Social Network Your Way to a Revolution – from The Economist:

“Can you social network your way to revolution?

MALCOLM GLADWELL is generally quite good at brushing away complicating details and getting the big picture. But not always. His latest New Yorker piece, on the revolutionary power of social media, is one of those not always times.

Mr Gladwell argues that social networking platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, are not likely to be helpful in generating real social change, a la the American Civil Rights movement. Why? He cites two key reasons. First, effective social movements require sacrifice, which is built on strong bonds between people—the kind where you can demand real participation from each other. Social networks, on the other hand, are good for building and maintaining thousands of weak relationships—the kind where you can get people to “like” your cause or re-tweet your message, but not show up to an actual protest.

Secondly, real social movements require hierarchical organisation to be effective—someone has to be strategising and coordinating. Social networks aren’t hierarchical; they’re networks. That makes them flexible and resilient, but not particularly strategic or goal-oriented. And so, Mr Gladwell says, social networks will be useful for all kinds of things, but not for the really hard tasks involved in social change.

Tyler Cowen suggests Mr Gladwell may not have this quite right.

The point is well-taken but still activism of some kinds should go up.  Loose ties favor campaigns to get out the vote and sign petitions; those developments can bring about many positive changes.  Most unsettled issues in American politics today would not be well-served by organizing less cooperative confrontations, even if you perceive a great injustice.  I believe that “making the existing social order” more efficient, to use Gladwell’s phrase, is positively correlated with many desirable reforms, as are the qualities of “resilience” and “adaptability.”  If we look at the recent experience in Iran, web mobilization seems to have encouraged — not discouraged — people from risking their lives for a cause.

I think Mr Gladwell misses a number of crucial things. One mistake is to assume that social media merely increases weak ties. In my experience, it strengthens ties generally. Networks like Twitter and Facebook reduce the cost of minor interactions, which leads to more minor interactions. Mr Gladwell sees this and notes the rise in minor interactions between thousands of quasi-friends. What he misses is that repeated minor actions are also the means by which stronger relationships are kept strong. These platforms make it easier to maintain friendships through trying times and circumstances.

Another of his errors comes from downplaying the significance of resilience and redundance. The problem with a hierarchical system is that it breaks easily and catastrophically. If its leader makes a mistake or is somehow neutralised, the movement suffers a crucial blow. Networks, on the other hand, are bottom-up enterprises. They’re very difficult to shut-down or break.

And this gets to the really, marvelously subversive thing about networks: the way in which they equalise information relationships. On social networks, anyone and everyone becomes a producer of content, and this function is taken away from central actors susceptible to control by the powerful. Where social networks penetrate, governments cannot control the story. This is true in places like Iran, and in America. It has been fascinating, in recent years, to observe the number of cases in which police abuse of some sort or another has been exposed thanks to the distributed information gathering and filtering powers of social networks.

Social networking, it seems to me, has quite clearly shifted the balance of power away from centralised power and authority. Perhaps we haven’t observed clear evidence of its revolutionary potential yet, but this shift alone seems extremely promising. And what is not seen might be just as important; in a world in which information can’t be controlled, abuses of power should become costlier and more rare. Twitter might, in some cases, make actual protests unnecessary. And that would be a good thing.” – The Economist

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