Winning Weakly?

The rapid adoption of social media technology and it’s use in many recent political movements (The Arab spring revolutions for example) has led many analysts to laude the platforms of twitter and Facebook as revolutionary catalysts and perhaps even essentials. 

The strength of these platforms, of course, is their ability to more easily establish and maintain weak ties and to spread information rapidly and reliably to said ties. However, I think the role of these tools has been a bit overstated, though certainly not imagined.

This article by Malcolm Gladwell (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all), published in the New Yorker in 2010, examines the intersection of social media and activism as contrasted mainly with the Civil rights movement in America in the 1960’s The argument essentially is that the kind of activism that makes real change is sacrificial and confrontational, in often fatal ways, and that the people who join in these movements predominately do it because of some close interpersonal tie, a strong tie.

The weak tie lends itself to dissemination and low risk sympathy and interaction, something that can be leveraged in useful and innovative ways, but often is not (see: Kony 2012)

However, I think it is faulty to discount the potential impact of social media networks if only for the idea that as they become more entrenched in our lives it is with the aid of these networks that we will proceed to form strong ties. At this point it is unthinkable for friends growing closer to not at some point re-tweet some things the other has said, and good luck in a relationship where you refuse to follow your girlfriend on instagram.

Ultimately, in the realm of social movements I think that the role of the weak tie may have been overstated, but as we move forward any potential gains will come from learning to leverage the power of multiple low commitment activities (micro donations for example) while simultaneously investigating whether social media networks can convert strong ties to weak ones, perhaps by having a greater prevalence of triadic closure pressure.

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3 thoughts on “Winning Weakly?”

  1. I believe that the use of social media in political and cultural activist movement is an effective, but not overall important part to the movement itself. The number of twitter followers or Facebook likes a position has is irrelevant if the people liking the post are afraid to fight for their position. Social media is increasing the mask of the Internet, the idea that people hide behind the computer and do not actually work toward their goal. The Arab spring did in fact have physical actions stem from social influence. I do agree however that social media has grown to be considered too important.

  2. In the pure sense of the Arab Spring, and other recent political movements, I think Twitter and Facebook helped keep those already connected to each other better connected. I have to agree that these social network tools did not aid in the successes of these movements, but just made communicating a little easier.

    These tools do have their place for activists towards people who may not want to be an activist, but want to help nonetheless. Using services like PayPal in conjunction with Twitter makes for an easy way to collect funds from around the world if these groups market their cause effectively. It is much easier to donate a dollar or two than it is to join a sit-in for some political movement half-way across the globe.

    The overall importance of social media for activism will probably stay at the level it is now: a nice tool to have before the government turns off its connection to the internet. It will not be what makes or breaks the success of an activist movement.

    Good post and an interesting article you linked to.

  3. I have to disagree with a position that diminishes the importance of peripheral involvement in a social injustice. Kony 2012 became a joke because there was not enough direct involvement, but there was a ton of furor raised by the low risk sympathizers. Success in a cause relies on both internal commitment AND peripheral awareness. My strongest argument for the power of uninvolved sympathizers is that most arguments benefit from a third party take on the issue. If a position has the support of a broader audience, then it appears to be a more righteous position.

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