Why Facebook and Twitter won’t be leading the revolution

October 8, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Bah humbug. Great piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker taking apart the hype over twitter and facebook as a tool for social Malcolm Gladwellchange. And being Malcolm Gladwell of tipping point fame, it’s much more interesting than that. Here are some highlights:

“The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution. [But] in the outsized enthusiasm for social media, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

Truly transformatory activism, like the US civil rights movement just celebrating its 50th anniversary, ‘is a “strong-tie” phenomenon’, based on close friendships and community ties that bind in the face of danger. In contrast,

‘The kind of activism associated with social media is built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. There is strength in weak ties -our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet is terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism….. Social networks are effective at increasing [not motivation but] participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece… Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.’

In contrast

'I have a tweet'

'I have a tweet'

‘The civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign… It was high-risk activism. It was also, crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline. This is the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations. Wikipedia is a perfect example.

There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. [Networks] 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?

The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy…. Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised.

[Some proponents] consider the new model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

Go Malcolm. Grumpy old lefties and technophobes everywhere will be raising a glass. And of course none of this applies to blogs……

h/t Megan Weintraub

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October 8, 2010
Duncan Green