Why Facebook and Twitter won’t be leading the revolution

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 [caption id="attachment_3722" align="alignleft" width="102" caption="'I have a tweet'"]'I have a tweet'[/caption] ‘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 Social networkers fight back on the Guardian]]>

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12 Responses to “Why Facebook and Twitter won’t be leading the revolution”
  1. Tord Steiro

    Although I agree with much of the contenct, I disagree with the conclusion. Take this paragraph, for instance:
    //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.//
    Given that traditional civil movements also use social networks, why will they not benefit from the above mentioned powerful tools? Of course they will, because of the tools given by social networks, they will be more effective.
    And what about low-risk activism? Letter/fax/email campaigns may not change the world, but it certainly helps any old-fashioned social movement it its claims are backed up by millions of campaigners in this kind of low-risk activism. Which is very easy to organize through social networks.
    Further, some of the problems with high-risk activism is that you need a certain number of people to start with. Social networking dramatically increase the relative proximity of other people. Yes, low-risk activism will be the choice for most people active through social networks, but it will be easier for hardliners to find fellow activists for high-risk activism.
    Social networks were, after all, instrumental in the organizing of such high-risk activities as the Gaza Flotilla, and once on the boat, the weakness of social network vs hierarchy is no longer relevant. It’s not easy to leave the moment once you are on the boat.
    Social networks will transform social movements in much the same way as the printing press and postal services did: By increasing the amount of people available to organizers, by increasing the amount of information and ideas available to organizers, and by increasing the potential impact of those who have a good product to pass around.

  2. I think one of the other replies said it well – “Given that traditional civil movements also use social networks, why will they not benefit from the above mentioned powerful tools? Of course they will, because of the tools given by social networks, they will be more effective.”
    But what I think we all have to remind ourselves sometimes is that even social media (and the internet and computers in general) are just tools.
    Behind them are people and without people uniting in their beliefs and sharing their real human experiences there is no activism or social change.

  3. JPK

    Social change and activitism are one big phlosopical and ideological force to be reckoned with – do these efforts have a lasting impact on social & economic stability?
    Expect anything that goes with the politics of such human experiences behind the scenes.
    Does the twin phenomenon really exist in the hearts and minds of people who are trying to unite their beliefs and share their true experiences when they sometimes manipulate their own emotions and actions to blame at each other?
    It is, therefore, important not to lose sight in distinguishing between right and wrong. That is the key to maintain honest wisdom and trust regardless of race, creed, political & ideological differences, etc.
    Do not expect the excessive politicking wherever and whenever they are – or else, someone will be challenged by people who want to hold those responsible for such actions that lead to hatred, political instability, economic mismanagement, ideological occultism, and a lot more.
    We, ordinary people, must fight for poltical stability that is well-definable because it is one of the very important elements in facilitating both social and economic development.
    I personally believe that there should have alternatives (or complements, I say) to market capitalism the world currently has.
    REMEMBER, THERE IS NO TURNING BACK! Nothing shall be further from the truth in respecting people’s beliefs and ensuring social and economic stability in any part of the globe.
    I say please, please, please, do not forget what you really need to know about the influence and impact activism or social change have on political, social, economic stability.
    But please, don’t let the blame game ensues whenever there are that need to be solved at a moment’s notice. So be better WARNED!
    Thank you very much.

  4. Nicholas Colloff

    One point not mentioned is that ‘electronic’ social networks have the capacity to make ‘activism’ more not less visible to the ‘powers that be’;and, this, offer a new tool for identifying what and whom to repress…

  5. JPK

    It is time to reveal the real ideological motives behind the varying sorts of activism and social change that infuence public policy, grassroots awareness, political campaigns, etc.
    I expect little of those stupid so-called “blame games” to happen in any part of the globe.
    Do you really understand these consequences, anyone?
    It’s time to discuss meaningfully about this phenomenon – and tell others that too much politics of ideological activism can be a nuisance to everyday lives.
    Thank you very much.

  6. If I had ever heard anyone actually arguing that “The revolution will be tweeted” Gladwell would have had a fair point. Instead, his opponent in this piece is a non-existant straw man that he very effectively beats down. Well done.
    Twitter and Facebook is not a ‘campaign’ that can be compared to Dr King’s civil rights movement. They are communication tools – more comparable to a poster, letter or a telephone. The success of campaigns relies more on having a strong strategy than the tools alone. Also, a strong strategy employes different tools together, making them all more effective.
    For example:
    What would have happened if the guys doing the first lunch counter sit-in were tweeting about there experience? Or announcing their actions via Facebook? Maybe nothing. Or maybe they would have managed to spread the workd about their ‘strong network/high risk action’ not just to their local area, but to broader like minded communities across the country. And maybe they would have sparked similar actions nationwide in real time. Or maybe not.
    Online communication will replace all other forms of human contact. Similarly, twitter and facebook are not threats to ‘old school’ activism. They are tools that can be employed if the campaign strategy calls for it.
    For more critique and discussion on this please visit http://www.futuremediachange.com

  7. JPK

    Say, why not make an effective strategy by any means neccessary to keep ideological activism in check during real-life situations?
    I just want to know about the real motivation of ideological activists who are threatening to infiltrate during events that take place.
    Be careful of what you wish for.
    Excessive politicking brought about by ideological activism may put you at risk, especially during real-life situations like protest actions, sit-ins, etc. etc. etc.
    It’s time for people like me to settle things down – and, please, no more excessive politicking.
    Thank you very much.

  8. Siddhartha

    Most of the communities in the entire Indian sub-continent(such as Bengali) succumbed in ‘Culture of Poverty'(Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is genuinely feel regret ed or ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-administrative system, weak mother language, continuous consumption of common social space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold(supported by some lame excuses). Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent, caring society, fearless & dignified living. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative behaviour(values) to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately co-parenting children those are born out of ignorance, extreme poverty. It seems that all of us are being driven only by the very animal instinct. If the Bengali people ever be able to bring that genuine freedom (from vicious cycle of ‘poverty’) in their own life/attitude, involve themselves in ‘Production of (social) Space’ (Henri Lefebvre), initiate a movement by heart, an intense attachment with the society at large is very much required – one different pathway has to create, decent & rich Politics will definitely come up. – Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah-711101, India.