Malcolm Gladwell’s weak ties
I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about online activism. I find the social media expert industrial complex pretty obnoxious, and like Gladwell, I don’t think the micro-donations and “awareness raising” that characterize most online activism can challenge the status quo. But this piece, like so much old media coverage of new media, is lazy and dumb.
(Note: I wrote this before reading other commentary online. That was lazy and dumb of me. Alex Madrigal has made similar points, better than I ever could, here.)
One of Gladwell’s main arguments is that real-life activism is based on “strong ties,” while social media enables “weak ties.” (I’m breaking out the scare quotes to remind myself, as much as anyone else, that Gladwell has an unnerving ability to make a concept feel true just by labelling it. For a good takedown of this concept, check out this post, via Madrigal.)
This ignores the strong ties that are reinforced online. But in my experience, Twitter is also a tool that can turn weak ties into strong ties. And while it isn’t automatic, social media is particularly suited to creating friendships across traditional social divides like age, class, and race.
A couple years ago, most of my time was spent with other students and high school friends. The folks I followed on Twitter were ex-colleagues, casual friends, and strangers. But all of that communication has bred intimacy, and lead to more face time. The divide between online and offline relationships is increasingly fuzzy, and as a result, I interact with a broader group of people.
Gladwell doesn’t account for this because, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t bothered exploring or even thinking deeply about social media. At one point, he sets up Wikipedia in opposition to hierarchical offline activist groups. The implication is that all online networks are leaderless and chaotic. The thing is that Wikipedia has both a leadership structure and institutionalized structures for dispute resolution. There isn’t one editor who reads every entry, but there is definitely one guy with final say on strategic direction. And yet we get nonsense like this:
If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure.
There’s no such thing as a “wiki-boycott”—it’s just a funny combination of words, a diminishing shorthand for all online organizing. The internet, apparently, is the one thing the New Yorker is allowed to be inaccurate about. And that’s too bad, because whether the revolution is tweeted or not, I’d hate to see it missed by the world’s best magazine.