Will social networks boost good political change?

by on September 27, 2010 at 1:52 pm in Political Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

Malcolm Gladwell says not so much:

Shirky considers this [web-based] 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. 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.

The point is well-taken but still activism of some kinds should go up.  Loose ties favor campaigns to get out the vote and sign petitions; those developments can bring about many positive changes.  Most unsettled issues in American politics today would not be well-served by organizing less cooperative confrontations, even if you perceive a great injustice.  I believe that "making the existing social order" more efficient, to use Gladwell's phrase, is positively correlated with many desirable reforms, as are the qualities of "resilience" and "adaptability."  If we look at the recent experience in Iran, web mobilization seems to have encouraged — not discouraged — people from risking their lives for a cause.  Is the web doing much to help the worst African dictators or the totalitarians in North Korea?  Not so many data are in, but so far I score this one for Shirky.

1 Eddie Spelling September 27, 2010 at 3:01 pm

The concern of social network activism is that it’s easy to sign up to a list, but it’s also easy for people to feel they’re contributing something larger, when they’re doing nothing more than signing a petition. This can add to social complacency, rather than reducing it.

Eddie @ perfect golf swing

2 bel September 27, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Who is Gladwell?

3 Rebecca September 27, 2010 at 3:55 pm

I think the other thing to consider is Gladwell’s take on networks as a whole, which I disagree with. The civil rights movement, as he points out, was hierarchical and run through existing organizations, i.e., the churches. However, there’s been a huge shift in trust in institutions (since Watergate and every -gate scandal since) and a move toward starting one’s OWN organization to fight for one’s cause outside of traditional channels. That happened pre-facebook and -twitter, and isn’t going anywhere. In this post-Nixon universe, social tools allow organizations AND individuals to communicate more effectively with each other, and use their shared language and values to achieve more.

4 The Unqualified Economist September 27, 2010 at 5:09 pm

“It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

Why is it harder to have an impact, because of all the noise from the ease of everyone else having equally easy access? The costs are lower, the access more easy, and finding something ,very specific even, is easier.

I disagree with Gladwell. Here’s a few specific reasons: The Jon Stewart/Colbert. This could come across as kind of hoaky in 2004. Is it real? Will people show up? But in 2010 you can log on and see there are x number of people registered to go, and even who they are.

The point Tyler makes about Iran is a good one. There might be a lot of people thinking on the margins about something — and if they are bolstered by seeing that others are starting to have the seedlings of those shared thoughts (where it is serious social issues in Iran’s case or some silly) they are more likely to act on them.

5 James September 27, 2010 at 5:20 pm

I don’t know. Gladwell dismisses the Twitter protests in Iran by finding a couple of critics who dislike the medium and sticking in some quotes. He then says this:

“But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

Really, just because I participate with blogs, I have never thought of myself at the level of someone who got a fire hose turned on them in Alabama. The comparison would be outrageous and I have never read a social media proponent ever make that claim.

Moreover, the notion that personal ties make people more motivated than an idea alone is hardly revelatory to anyone who has taken social psychology 101. Social ties will strengthen people even around a discredited and disconfirmed idea going so far as making the dissonant seek out converts. And that’s the principle at play in “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger.

The only question is can social media deliver those kind of social ties and there is no evidence that it can’t. Gladwell is a writer. He should know. If he doesn’t believe Twitter can motivate people — what makes him think the New Yorker can?

6 Zach N. September 27, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Gladwell inadvertently answers the timeless question, “What came first: the chicken or the egg?” Gladwell’s thesis is undermined by failing to explain why the “core activists,” upon whom his argument rests, decided to become core activists in the first place.

7 Larry September 27, 2010 at 7:12 pm

SN makes it easier for active organizations to do what they do. If NAACP had had Twitter and Facebook back in the day they would have been able to do more faster. It also provides another way for leaders to keep the attention of their flocks (e.g., Palin’s tweets) and provides an incredibly convenient way to measure the ebb and flow of ideas and activities.

SN is a bit like fishing. Posts are like bait, and every so often a post resonates with somebody and their behavior changes (often after failing to take the bait many times).

Imagining that someone who “Likes” something would in the absence of the button made their way to a lunch counter instead is a stretch.

8 Larry September 27, 2010 at 7:44 pm

SN makes it easier for active organizations to do what they do. If NAACP had had Twitter and Facebook back in the day they would have been able to do more faster. It also provides another way for leaders to keep the attention of their flocks (e.g., Palin’s tweets) and provides an incredibly convenient way to measure the ebb and flow of ideas and activities.

SN is a bit like fishing. Posts are like bait, and every so often a post resonates with somebody and their behavior changes (often after failing to take the bait many times).

Imagining that someone who “Likes” something would in the absence of the button made their way to a lunch counter instead is a stretch.

9 Maria Bustillos September 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Gladwell presents a completely false dichotomy in this piece. Social networks are far too new for us to have developed the most efficient means of harnessing them for political purposes. But it has certainly long been clear that there is a place for casual as well as committed involvement in politics. Does Gladwell really imagine that nascent activists who would otherwise have risked their lives for a cause will forget all about that cause once they’ve signed a Facebook petition?? What evidence is there of that?

Get a bumpersticker, give ten bucks, go canvass until your feet bleed, volunteer for the Peace Corps. It’s all good, as they say.

10 Silas Barta September 28, 2010 at 1:31 pm

TGGP wins the thread.

11 Bill Seitz September 30, 2010 at 9:07 am

“Most unsettled issues in American politics today would not be well-served by organizing less cooperative confrontations, even if you perceive a great injustice.”

Could you specify some “unsettled issues”, the “less cooperative confrontations” that would be bad, and *more* cooperative alternatives?

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