Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling "The Tipping Point," has written an article in the most recent edition of The New Yorker magazine in which he basically asserts that Facebook and other social networks are a waste of any social activist's time. Social networks encourage "weak-tie" connections between people who know each other only glancingly, he says, while powerful social uprisings like the Civil Rights movement sprout from the strong ties that bind close friends. He notes that it was close friends who sat down at a lunch counter in 1960s Greensboro, N.C., sparking the sit-ins that helped power the Civil Rights movement to the forefront of the nation's consciousness. He suggests an appeal from a Facebook friend you barely know won't convince you to risk your life for a cause, no matter how worthy.
I think he's oversimplified things. (The lack of any mention of the Obama campaign's groundbreaking use of social networks in the 2008 seems a glaring omission, for one thing). True, you won't man the barricades just because a Twitter follower you've never met asks you to. But within most of today's social networks, there are degrees of connectedness. Some folks you barely know. Others are your brothers, your cousins, your college roommates, your co-workers. It's an artificial construct to say online connections are inherently shallow. They do feature more of the who-are-you-again type encounters, but that's not all you find. It's as artificial as trying to suggest the development of the telephone made people less connected.
That said, I do see a good deal of Gold Rush-style hucksterism in social networks. And I do tend to think the discussions on social networks can too easily devolve toward the trivial. With thousands of cute pet pictures and pratfall videos and mundane musings cluttering the view, there's a lot on social networks I could do without. (Full confession: yes, my dog has made his Facebook appearance). But I generally figure the more communication between people, the better off we all are. If Gladwell really wanted a meaty bone to pick, he should have gone after the privacy issues that keep dogging Facebook and other networks. It's quite another thing all together when people you don't want to communicate with can eyeball you without permission.
What do you think? Are social networks tricking people into thinking they're making meaningful social connections when they're really not?