Strengthening weak ties online: A first response to Gladwell’s take on social media activism

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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.

5 Comments on this site

  1. Eric Andersen

    Great post, Alexandra – I also reject the notion that strong ties can’t be developed online. Yes, the technology was specifically targeted at enabling “weak tie” relationships – but since when have social tools been only used for what they were originally intended? The argument that just because the platforms of social media are built around weak ties certainly doesn’t mean that they cannot foster stronger ties.

  2. Anonymous

    Great thoughts here. Thank you for diving into this and how this spins off of so many of my conversations before and at Web of Change is pretty stunning. It’s a big question in the field, right? A lot of social media is weak ties. But so is a lot of just plain face to face. But, you know, aside from being forced into strong ties by way of birth (and those don’t always last) most relationships start small. Need to do better at recognizing – and using – the difference. And take initiative to turn some of these weaker relationships into more. Doesn’t happen enough. Undervalued. Hard work but often worth.

  3. @teachingwthsoul

    Wow…you hit the nail on the head for me, just as I was having a discussion, on dare I say it, twitter, about Gladwell’s piece with a couple of my pals. I’m still gonna be chewing on this as well. He made several, valid points that I must force myself to reflect on. Thanks for spurring me on to do some metacognating. Great piece! 🙂

  4. Doug Ragan

    I think Gladwell misses that point that many of the people who are getting on social media are not at the lunch table at all. I work with young people in the developing world, specifically in Africa, which is the fastest growing cell phone market in the world through which they are accessing social media like no tomorrow . These youth, who are truly at the bottom of the pyramid, have never had access to the web, never had the ability to create community beyond their own locality, and desperately want to have their story heard. Access to the social media is backstopping transparency in government, providing support during natural disasters, etc. If you are interested please check out some of my writing through my delicious site at

    So, yes, in the developed world where the internet is ubiquitous, there may be an argument based on weak ties, but in the reset of the world .. not the case.

  5. marnie webb

    Thanks for this, Alex. I’m not convinced that facebook and twitter are really encouraging people to big action — lunch counter sitting — as the kind of other actions — voting decisions, home buying decisions, etc — that help change take roots. I think the tools are more about media and spreading a story of change (albeit one that has to be aggregated, curated and re-distributed) that is necessary for systemic change to happen.


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