Tie Theory

Gladwell at a table, Los Angeles, January 2009

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article called Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, ostensibly about the superiority of “strong ties” versus “weak ties” in social activism. His premise is that “social media” — that is to say, Twitter and Facebook — are not able to effect real social change.

Telling us that social activism requires closely connected people, Gladwell devotes much of the article explaining how the students who began the Greensboro sit-in in 1960 were friends and roommates. They had strong ties. Then he introduces the “second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant”, a centrally controlled hierarchical organizational system.

Twitter and Facebook aren’t hierarchies but loose networks of acquaintances and strangers, which result in weak ties, according to Gladwell. He contends these networks are “effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires” which implies devaluation of this participation.

Gladwell dismisses an example of a digital “weak-tie” campaign that got people to sign up for a bone marrow registry.   Not because it wasn’t successful.   It was.   But because it somehow doesn’t meet with Gladwell’s criteria for social activism.   It lowered the barrier and made it too easy for people to participate.   I’m not quite sure what is wrong with lowering the barriers to participation.   Isn’t citizen engagement is a good thing?

Gladwell maintains that networks are not as effective or efficient as hierarchies because,

“How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”

Centralization can be more efficient because there is single decision maker.   It works the same in government, with an omnipotent ruler as the head of state decisions are easy.   It’s always easier to forcibly impose “discipline” than it is to build consensus.

friendship = “strong ties”

As Gladwell points out, real world friendship can make for some very strong ties.   The two examples cited show clearly what can result from the strong ties of friendship.   On one hand, you can have something as important as the Civil Rights Movement; on the other, strong ties of friendship can result in a frivolous campaign to punish the person who stole your friend’s cell phone and wouldn’t give it back.

Both examples demonstrate successful campaigns.   One used the strong tie hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement, the other the weak tie network of social media.

So, what has been proven, exactly?

Probably the low point of the article was Gladwell’s repetition of the oft used Facebook meme:

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend…”

Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker: Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted

Clearly, Gladwell doesn’t use Facebook.   Yesterday on the New Yorker live chat he admitted he’s not a Twitter user either, but that “I think someone created a twitter account in my name, and tweeted things a while back.”

Urban legends aside, the real point seems to be that Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t like Facebook or Twitter.   He doesn’t see the point.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I have nothing against Twitter. And I’d use it if I had more time. . . Here’s the deeper issue for someone like me or, for that matter, anyone contemplating using tools like Twitter. What is it you want to accomplish? Do you want a broad audience? Or a deep audience? In other words, would you rather do the best possible job engaging with a small but focused audience. Or would you rather spend your marginal hour reaching a large audience on a superficial level? There are lot of situations where the latter is a reasonable choice–like if I’m selling something, or announcing an event, or sharing a small but crucial bit of information. But I’m interested in exploring ideas in depth with the (small) group of people willing to geek-out with me. That makes strategy A a better choice.

—Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker Ask the Author Live: Malcolm Gladwell on Twitter

What caused the escalation from not wanting or needing a set of tools to attacking the validity of the tools?

Malcolm Gladwell makes it clear he is opposed to Facebook and Twitter.   There are all kinds of things wrong with these two “social media” platforms.

Yet to my great disappointment, Gladwell doesn’t seem to know what they are.

apples and oranges

For the argument to have had legitimacy, it should have compared tools with tools, or systems with systems. It would have been reasonable to compare social media with mass media, say.   Instead, Civil Rights Movement Activists are compared with Twitter and Facebook.   Gladwell isn’t proving a theory, he’s telling us what he believes an activist should be and we’re supposed to take it on faith.

All it takes to counter “tie theory” is a different incident from the Civil Rights Movement.

No central hiearchy told Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat on the bus.   Even though there were others on the bus who shared her plight, lived in the same geographic location, rode the same bus, suffered the same oppression— all presumably the stuff of “strong ties”— those people chose not to stand with her that day.   She made her decision to resist as an individual.   Strong ties or not, the others moved to the back of the bus.

Activism doesn’t have to the result of some grand design strategized by a central committee.   Quite often it just happens when people have reached their tipping point.

From the Live Chat:

[Comment From William Carleton: ]
Mr. Gladwell, the COO of Facebook and a Twitter exec both spoke at a marketing conference this week. In a way, they seem to be making your case for you, without much sense of irony. The description of the session led by the FB exec talks of “activisim” as a brand promotion tool. Do you think part of why social media reinforces the status quo may be because the stewards of the most succesful platforms seem to be selling them short?

Malcolm Gladwell:
That’s hilarious. If the civil rights movment were taking place today, do you think that some corporate entity would see it as a brand opportunity as well? Would Dr. King have done Nike ads? But yes, I’m not sure Facebook does much for real activism when they treat it as just another app.”

graphic reproduction of page one of Freedom's Journal
The printing press was a tool for social activism

activism IS just another app to a corporation

Neither Facebook or Twitter are activists; they are corporations. They are not forces for good or evil.
They exist to make a profit.   These are businesses that provide a platform and offer apps.   Corporations
don’t care about the environment, but they will
go “green” if it means an increase in profitability.

A long time ago, a man named Gutenberg invented a tool called a printing press.   Over the years, this invention has been used to print bibles, history books, political manifestos, novels, newspapers, wedding invitations and even magazines like the New Yorker.   A tool is only as good as the use to which it’s put.

So why is Malcolm Gladwell attacking “social media”?   Although asked to define “social media” it in yesterday’s chat, he declined.   In the article he says,

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.

Malcolm Gladwell, Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted

According to Gladwell, social media tools are not only a waste of time which could be better spent making a real difference, but they bolster the status quo.   He doesn’t offer any support for this premise either, though.

During the article he raises the stakes so that we aren’t just talking about ‘activism, we’re talking about ‘high-risk activism.’   The implication being that social activism without a component of personal jeopardy is not important.   Which is kind of like saying journalism without jeopardy is valueless.

Like Gladwell, I too grew up with stories of the civil rights movement.   A lot was accomplished.   Great odds were overcome.   And of course it makes for high drama.   Which is great on a movie screen but for the people living it, not so much.   In fact, I’m guessing that most activists would prefer not to give up their lives or their freedom or their livelihoods to meet their goals.   Think how much more Mr. King might have accomplished had he lived.

White lowercase letter F on a blue field is the FaceBook logo

Many of the more than 200,000 Canadians who had felt increasingly disenfranchised by unresponsive government have been organizing under the Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament group on Facebook.

Because it IS “easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns.”   And that’s a good thing.

Ironically a high school student created a Facebook activist group that helped save a forest in Gladwell’s home town.

Without actually using digital media, it is easy to be ignorant of the fact that conversations are possible in 140 character bursts. Links to longer works or reference material can be transmitted if more depth is required.

Malcolm Gladwell should understand the importance of these communication media, as he says himself,

“Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency.

Malcolm Gladwell Small Change

Yet he brushes it off as being important to business, not activism.   It seems that Malcolm Gladwell thinks we have all the information we need.   I think he’s wrong.   The older I get, the more there is to learn.

Particularly as we are smack dab in the midst of a digital revolution. It was fascinating to watch history being made as the UK’s Digital Economy Bill was debated in the House of Lords while being filled in on the background by UK citizens on an IRC channel.   Twitter and Facebook aren’t the whole story, there are blogs, and podcasts, and even other microblogging services like the non-proprietary Identi.ca.   There are a great many activists to be found on Twitter, and some of the ones I know are:

The blue Twitter bird mascot

@doctorow     @ninapaley     @JesseBrown     @Openattitude     @schestowitz     @PaoloBrini     @p2pnet     @jkoblovsky     @techdirt     @ZeroPaid     @Org9     @zotzbro     @mgeist     @GloriousAndFree     @zittrain     @Crosbie     @lessig     @jerezim     @_the_mad_hatter     @russellmcormond     @copyrightgirl     @crime_minister     @s_nunn     @mgifford     @EFF     @publicknowledge     @creativecommons     @juditrius     @StopActaNow     @OpenRightsGroup     @CETAWatch

Canada is very fortunate to have online activists.   This is especially important at a time when the main stream news media has failed to adequately inform citizens on a number of important topics.   Bloggers and online activists who broadcast and share information online have been picking up the slack.   We are also fortunate to live at a time when the barriers to assembly and partipation have been lowered by advances in digital technology.

In the absence of digital advocacy, Canadians could have been suffering under a Canadian DMCA as far back as 2005.   Bill C-32, the current incarnation of harmful copyright law we are facing, carries serious ramifications for Canada’s digital economy, as well as issues of cultural freedom, responsive government and even sovereignty.

Malcolm Gladwell may not find these issues as important as the Civil Rights Movement was, but they are of vital importance to Canada in the here and now.
a horizontal border of red graphic maple leaves

Image Credit: Malcolm Gladwell photo by bunnicula (cc by-nd)

Also: special thanks to John S, for his blog post Whose Ties Are You Calling Weak” for focusing my attention on the issue.

13 thoughts on “Tie Theory

  1. […] Tie Theory Like Gladwell, I too grew up with stories of the civil rights movement. A lot was accomplished. Great odds were overcome. And of course it makes for high drama. Which is great on a movie screen but for the people living it, not so much. In fact, I’m guessing that most activists would prefer not to give up their lives or their freedom or their livelihoods to meet their goals. Think how much more Mr. King might have accomplished had he lived. […]

  2. Although he does make some lame-o points, I have to disagree with you (and the other critics of Gladwell’s article) on this one. He’s arguing about activism aimed at systemic social change, not activism generally, which none of the counter-examples I’ve seen speak to.

    Social media is still just media, and building awareness and communicating about an issue are necessary but insufficient in bringing about the kind of social justice he’s talking about.

    I do think that an over-inflated view of the power of social media to affect change runs the risk of people feeling like it’s a substitute for making a real commitment to social justice, which does involve more than voicing opinions online. Maybe this is a generous interpretation, especially given that Gladwell is just a writer and not an activist (sfaik), but it’s what I think is the value of his article, which was the same point in the Gil Scott Heron song alluded to in the title.

  3. I agree with both you and Gladwell that there has been some over-inflation of the power of social media to affect change. That doesn’t render it invalid, however.

    I strongly disagree with your point that social media is “just media”. Because it’s not. Media is one-way, a means of broadcasting, which can be used powerfully as a political tool for propaganda.

    Internet apps like the various Social Media are different because they allow for two way communication. This can be powerful indeed.

    Social media can be the tech equivalent of people meeting face to face in a coffee shop. Critics dismiss the importance of this because of the vast amount of inanities that are “tweeted”. Not taking into account there is a similar amount of nonessential chatter evident in human face to face conversation as well.

    If you must compare it to something, instead of television compare it to the telephone. Or a democratic public meeting.

    One of Canada’s most recent political parties, The Pirate Party of Canada, discusses their business in online forums, holds “meetings” and if I’m not mistaken, votes/elections, via Internet IRC channels. In this way, members across the country can not only communicate but develop policy and decide on the the course of their physical activism.


    Social Media isn’t a substitute for real commitment, it’s a series of tools that can make real commitment possible.

    These systems are in their infancy, with powerful forces at work seeking to harness and/or corrupt them, but what these Internet apps do well is to remove the physical barrier to organizing and sharing/evolving ideas.

  4. The potential for interactivity with social media is a characteristic, just as print and electronic media have their own characteristics. It’s certainly a tool for broadcasting, and I don’t see how it’s any less of a propaganda tool than other media. There’s also nothing particularly democratic about social media, in the same way as open public meetings aren’t inherently democratic. Besides, even North Korea has a twitter feed: http://twitter.com/uriminzok

    Ultimately though, I just don’t see any evidence that social media has made our society any more democratic, and that by itself, it is more likely to produce flash mob pillow fights than social justice. That’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s uses or that it’s not a useful organizing tool. Maybe it doesn’t necessarily displace more traditional organizing tools or face-to-face interactions and strategizing, but to the extent that it does is what Gladwell is warning us about.

  5. I didn’t mean to imply that social media could not be used for propaganda. I merely mentioned propaganda in conjunction with broadcast media as one of the political uses traditional media had. Because of its broadcast capability, social media can also be used to disseminate propaganda.

    Social media is a tool for broadcasting but it also makes interactive communication possible. This is certainly not true of traditional media.

    I did not say social media is democratic. It is a tool. It can, however, be used democratically. It can also be used undemocratically.

    I did not say that social media has made our society more democratic. What I have seen is evidence that citizens who felt disenfranchised by our political system are finding ways to organize and participate.

    Social media, and the underlying Internet which supports it, is a tool. If other forms of activism are effective, they will not be supplanted by social media tools. In my experience, it’s working the other way, by giving a voice to previously disaffected citizens, and encouraging them to become politically active.

    What IS in danger of being supplanted is the traditional media. The traditional media has cut news media budgets time and again, and what remains is a mainstream media that is content not to report inconvenient news.

    My point is that social media is a series of tools. Tools do not create social change, people do.

  6. Traditional media could be more open to participation and interactivity than they traditionally have been (think radio call in shows or community tv programming). It’s more the business model that limits participation and disenfranchises the public than the technology itself (which of course is what drives today’s debates around digital/online technology). I’m splitting hairs a bit here, as i do recognize social media is more interactive by design.

    What I’m not convinced of is that substantially more people are politically engaged because of social media. I see your point with the Pirate Party example, which is that people can organize across this stupidly big country, but I’m guessing those people would be politically engaged even if those tools weren’t available. At the end of the day, I don’t think technological barriers are what alienates most people from political processes in this country.

  7. Traditional media existed to run one way, for the powerful to speak to the powerless. Social media tools run in two directions. It’s the difference between a university lecture and a conversation.

    Even if traditional media had been “more open” those who control it dictate the tune. The media is controlled by corporations, and allowed by government to exist. Remember the first rule of any coup d’etat? Capture the media.

    Technological barriers aren’t what has alienated the electorate. Citizens who have seen our governments thumb their noses at us over and over again are what has led to our frustration and disenfranchisement.

    The deck had been stacked against us because barriers to participation have been so high, people get frustrated and stop thinking they can make a difference and gave it up.

    It’s early days yet, but what I certainly see is political engagement among people who had already given up. I am a prime example, and I’m not alone.

  8. […] Julian Assange is facing charges that I think even the most naïve schoolchild would realize are trumped up, along with both cyber and economic attacks, topped off with death threats. Wonder if that’s enough jeopardy for Malcolm Gladwell, who made the argument that real activism requires jeopardy. New Yorker “Small Change” article, which prompted my rebuttal Tie Theory. […]

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