Malcolm Gladwell has a new piece on Twitter, Facebook and social activism that is a must-read for people working at the intersection of politics and technology, and which feels especially timely after spending the past five days at Web of Change. He argues that the success of the civil rights movement — or any major movement for social change — depended on strong social ties among participants. In particular, he notes Doug McAdam’s excellent social movement research, which found that participants in the Freedom Summer of 1964 were most likely to stay engaged if they had other close friends who were also participating.
And then he compares the strong ties of civil rights organizing to the world of social media:
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…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. 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.
I’m still chewing on Gladwell’s argument, particularly since the literature he uses to debunk social media is the same literature that has driven much of my research into social media. But there’s no doubt that Gladwell’s argument points towards a key question in online engagement: how do we use online tools to not only activate participants but to deepen their relationship to one another? The fact that social media is able to make effective use of weak ties shouldn’t preclude its application to “strong tie” activism, too. The challenge is to develop the methodologies, tools and culture that will nourish strong ties online as well as off.