Jonathan Lehrer over at Wired has sketched the outlines of an objection to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker article, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.”  The gist of Gladwell’s argument, in case you missed it, is that all of the recent hype over the revolutionary potential of social media, like Twitter and Facebook, is unlikely to be realized because social media engenders “weak ties” — low level commitments to strangers or bare acquaintances.  Lehrer’s response hinges on sociologist Mark Granovetter‘s pivotal paper, the title of which could be taken as shorthand for Lehrer’s premise: “The Strength of Weak Ties.”

Basically, Lehrer argues, Gladwell has underestimated the utility of weak ties, especially with regard to social activism.  Summarizing, he writes,

It turns out that such distant relationships aren’t just useful for getting jobs or spreading trends or sharing information. According to Granovetter, they might also help us fight back against the Man, or at least the redevelopment agency.

Lehrer has made a salient point with his article — that weak ties can help strengthen trust — but ultimately, that doesn’t amount to a refutation of Gladwell’s thesis.  “Short Change,” it should be remembered, is talking specifically about claims to the effect that social media has displaced centralized, hierarchical organization.  Hence the article’s focus on the civil rights movement:

The students who joined the sit-ins across the South during the winter of 1960 described the movement as a “fever.” But the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion.

Granovetter’s concrete example, that of a weak tie leading to a job offer, works in part because the personal contact already has a strong tie to the company offering the job.  The job applicant’s weak tie to the personal contact works in their favor specifically because it connects them to a hierarchical establishment  Gladwell’s argument is that the civil rights movement held together and achieved concrete goals because all of the weak ties that connected people to it were marshaled by the strong tie establishments, like the N.A.A.C.P and churches.

In the instances where social media really does aid social activism, the trick, then, is to look for the already existing establishment that serves as the focal point around which networks of weak ties form.  In the case of last year’s election protests in Iran, it’s easy to lose sight of the role of Mir-Hossein Mousavi‘s campaign in organizing the Green Movement.  Twitter and Facebook helped create a network to weak ties to Mousavi, but it’s difficult to argue that they’d have been any Movement without that centralized organization.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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