Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in The New Yorker, Small Change, takes on Twitter, Facebook and social activism. As usual, Gladwell has forced many of us on the Internet to stop, read, and think.
Gladwell’s critique is social media, despite the hype, can’t drive true social/political change. For one, social media activity doesn’t require the sacrifice that builds strong bonds. Social media is about weak social ties. Also, he continues, social media lacks hierarchy, which is required for organization and strategy – essentials for activism to succeed.
The Atlantic Wire has a summary of blogs offering dissenting opinions. Most useful is The Economist Free Exchange, which points out that social media makes social ties, regardless of their strength, more efficient and this can strengthen social bonds, particularly when there is the need to sacrifice. Also, lacking hierarchy allows a movement to resist being crushed because there is no brain to kill (of course, there is no brain to guide the movement, either).
Points well made by both sides. Reading Gladwell a second time, he seems to be focusing on the sacrifice and emotional involvement that the great U.S. civil rights movement required. These bonds were personal; most of the activists were recruited into the movement by someone already involved. His point here approaches something that I tried to make in a presentation last spring (immodestly The Chavez Imperatives): Social media does a lot of things right. It provides an information source that facilitates communication between like-minded people and a way to find more like-minded people. This is especially true if it is guided through one site, such as the Obama 2008 campaign. However, social media cannot deliver emotion, which is the key to building a social movement, and also a brand. For that, you need direct interaction with people, whether sitting at a luncheon counter with fellow students while being mocked and insulted, or simply being involved in a product launch event – these things build passion.
Let’s be clear. I am not equating the U.S. civil rights movement’s sacrifice with the facile sacrifice of laying down extra cash for some branded flip-flops. No, that would be asinine and ugly, and there are enough of those sites. My point is only that turning an idea into a trend requires participation and sacrifice, whether it is risking your life, or your peer group’s approval. In fact, this may be why social media is better for marketing rather than social change – because the “sacrifices” are lighter.