Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is Facebook killing social activism?


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?

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think he's way off in thinking that FB has ruined activism. If someone I barely know sends me something on a cause that I believe in, I'll join the cause. I may not have noticed it if this person hadn't brought it to my attention. If someone I have a real connection with tells me about a cause I don't believe in, then I won't join that cause no matter how much I like or know the person. So I don't think FB or personal association have any link to activism. I think it's beliefs, morals and experience that create activism.

Brian said...

It seems to me that activism comes from (at least) two different places - the head and/or the heart. With the amount of competition for mindshare these days, I suspect FB is in fact a good, targeted way to go after mindshare to stir the heart to act.

Anonymous said...

I read Gladwell's article yesterday and actually completely agree with him. I think his main point was not the difference between weak and strong connections to others in a cause, but the fact that change comes best from well organized, truly dedicated and structured organizations (his example of the car pools in Alabama), and that these organizations come from strong ties to others. The Obama campaign benefited from Social Media because it was a specific effort spurred on by organizers. Ron Paul would be a better example of social media in a similar context where he made a splash that was unprecedented, but in the end it had very little impact on the election.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Malcolm should focus on the input and not the output. In other words, it's the potential social activist's use of Facebook that is the failure to effectively utilize the resource. For what it is worth, I think that Facebook tends to create loose ties among masses of people, but it is great for distributing a broad message. I did not read his article, but that might be the point -- learn to use Facebook, as one of many resources, to effect social change.

Anonymous said...

I agree!!!
Facebook is a shallow institution...promoting empty values and useless information....
Everyone wants to be famous!

Facebook is great for stalkers....

Anonymous said...

I think this guys hair is killing social activism more then any web site could.

Dave Potts said...

Eric, you bring up the Obama campaign, and I agree that the organization online was unprecedented - but friending the candidate and posting status updates about your intentions to vote for him do not constitute activism. Nothing changed until millions of people left their computer and gadget screens to go and vote.

I think one of the key thoughts in Gladwell's piece is in the point he makes about the Help Sameer bone marrow campaign. How was the campaign so successful? By not asking much of it's participants. Social media may be a good tool for organization, but "liking" or following something or someone online is NOT activism, it merely provides an indicator of a particular group's mood or feelings about a particular issue. In that sense, all "push-button activism" does is provide polling data.

Anonymous said...

What's with the mop on his head?

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