Will social networks boost good political change?

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.


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