11 October 2010

Gladwell v. Shirky

Filed under Articles

I know I’m a little behind the times here, but I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted and feel compelled to add my thoughts to the discussion.

The Article

Here’s my summation of what the article says: Weak ties enable the mass accomplishment of things that we don’t already mind doing. Strong ties are required for meaningful, societal change.

For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, strong ties are the connections that we would colloquially call friends and family. Weak ties are acquaintances. Generally speaking, new ideas and information (including job opportunities) spread through weak ties because people with strong ties are more likely to have the same perspectives and already know all the same things.

My Analysis

In principle, Gladwell’s right. Within the context of living memory, the application of social media to any particular social ill will not create a revolutionary societal shift that will solve the problem.

However, Gladwell singles out chapter one of Clay Shirkey’s book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations as evidence of the limitations of social media in activism. Again his point is well made.

However! The real point of Here Comes Everybody is that the easy proliferation of weak ties via social media will radically transform society itself. Shirkey draws on historical examples of how technological evolution in communication has shaped society moving forward (eg, the printing press).

Now it must be acknowledged that there has been excessive optimism about the value of social media in righting the wrongs of the world: how it will empower all people, overthrow dictatorships, end discrimination, etc. You and I both know that none of this will happen by itself.

At the same time however, it must be acknowledged that Gladwell’s dismissal of social media as a tool for societal change is also off the mark.

The Point

At the end of the day, social media (in all its forms) is just a tool. It creates new opportunities for how people relate to one another, but people themselves have to create the change that follows. This change may be in the direction of greater social justice, or it may be bent to the will of dictators and used for repression.

What I believe we can all agree on is that these tools create an opportunity; perhaps not for public, confrontational social change, but certainly for a change in person-to-person and societal group dynamics. This is the type of opportunity that only comes once in a generation, and it’s up to us to figure out how to leverage social media to create a more engaged and empowered global citizenry.

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