Previously published on PsychologyToday.com in “Positively Media”
In a recent New Yorker column , author Malcolm Gladwell argues that social media is not redefining activism. Along with many others, I disagree. There are four ways that social media technologies are rewriting the rules of activism because of the breadth and quality of its reach: changing public awareness, word of mouth persuasion, the increased sense of urgency, and enhanced individual agency.In his editorial, Gladwell describes some powerful scenes from the civil rights activism in the sixties where people literally risked life and limb to stand up for their beliefs. Gladwell asserts that contrary to this level of risk and passion, the activism associated with social media is transient participation without sustainable motivation or potency because it’s based on weak ties. As described by the sociologist Granovetter (1983) in his seminal work, connections are called ‘weak ties’ to describe how they link us to outside networks providing information we wouldn’t otherwise get.
The word ‘weak’ in our common usage, however, misrepresents the nature of the weak ties connection. It is not an emotional or interpersonal description of the quality of the link, but rather a term for how the individuals (or nodes, in network parlance) are related.
In network terms, Jesus and Buddha were weak ties because they connected people across many, many networks.
However, for many of the individuals who connected to them, their emotional attachment and commitment was anything but weak. The intensity and commitment to the connection is independent of the weak/strong descriptor. In social networks, many individuals connect to many others. Will every connection or relationship be of binding emotional intensity? No, of course not. Does this mean that social media activism does not have the potential to create activists with staying power because they were created through weak ties? No.
It is a mistake to attribute human passion and commitment to social change to the communications conduit. Gladwell cites Clay Shirky’s (2008) example of the lost cell phone and resultant Internet-based resolution and notes that “The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient.” This is absolutely true. It is not, however, indicative of the humanity or passion that drives communication. It is an example of how communication facilitated a goal. The cell phone loss, while inconvenient, was not a pivotal social event, nor did Shirky suggest that it is. It is a demonstration of how information travels in ways that were not possible before, connecting people in a way that allows for action in a new way.
If sustainable activism requires passion and commitment, then it makes more sense that social media will facilitate rather than decrease advocacy by connecting more of those who do have passion. At the same time, passersby who are not on engaged in the ‘fever’ that Gladwell describes of the sixties can still meaningfully contribute. There are multiple paths to promoting social change: increasing awareness, providing support, and taking action. All are necessary.
There are four important ways that social media is redefining activism and advocacy.
The first is that social media changes public awareness. Because information circulates so freely and quickly, it creates a new baseline for change. The donations to the Haitian earthquake are a case in point. While many people were moved to text in a donation, a few were committed enough to get on a plane and go to Haiti to help. The many, however, had a new appreciation of the enormity of the disaster in a part of the world that might never have invaded their consciousness. Social media distribution gave it an urgency much more potent than getting highlights in the evening news while reclining passively on the sofa. This matters when it comes to changing public policy where the majority view is what ultimately legislates change.
Second, social media distribution means we are getting information from someone in our network. In this world of ubiquitous information, the scarce commodity is filtering and social proof. Consequently, whether this information is from a Facebook friend, a Twitter follower, a real friend, or someone in our Scrabble group, it is more persuasive because it has context and word of mouth validation.
Third, social media networks cross technologies and have immediate impact that gives it urgency, makes it personal and allows for immediate individual action. This is particularly important in raising donations quickly and spreading critical information.
And finally, social media technologies have changed the psychological impact of communications by changing our expectations about participation and individual agency. The ability to act, even if it is furthering a Twitter post on the Iranian elections, allows us to feel a level of involvement in events we might not otherwise feel (or possibly have even heard of.) This act, while insignificant compared to the bravery of the college students at the coffee counter, creates engagement and emotional buy-in and well as a sense that our individual actions matter. I think of it as the “thin edge of the wedge,” to borrow a phrase from novelist Nancy Mitford. It moves people toward social action.
Gladwell’s position is change-phobic. Things don’t have to happen like they did in the past to be powerful, valid, or effective. Social change isn’t about what tools people use. It’s about people. It’s about what they believe, their goals, and how they communicate, connect, and commit. Twitter does not create a revolution any more than the first small group of protesters that show up in person do. It is the people who join in that create energy and action. Don’t underestimate the potential for bringing people of passion and purpose together online and don’t assume that something that starts online will stay there.
This is a transmedia world–information knows no boundaries. Just because the civil rights protests occurred without Twitter, Facebook and mobile phones, doesn’t mean a powerful movement for change won’t happen with them helping bring people and resources together. It’s even possible that with social media, the civil rights movements of the sixties could have succeeded faster and avoided some of the physical violence. A YouTube video of the threats against those first black college students “sitting in” at the coffee counter would have been extraordinarily powerful and taken the cause to a national level much earlier.