Gladwell’s take on social networking as a social force (or lack thereof)

by on September 28, 2010 · 3 comments

An interesting and thought-provoking piece by Malcolm Gladwell over at The New Yorker this month takes a look at the intersection between true civic activism (the kind that could get you killed) and “social networking” activism (the kind that only takes a retweet or hitting the “like” button on Facebook).

Gladwell’s piece starts off retelling the story of how the Civil Rights “sit-in” movement of the early 1960s spread like wildfire among the younger set without the aid of, god forbid, Facebook or Twitter. Contrast that historical example with the more recent happenings in Iran and the Twitter Revolution, where it seemed that tens of thousands of Twitter users stood in solidarity with the protesting Iranians, some of who were literally dying in the streets. The point Gladwell is making, and one with which I concur, is that for all the hype regarding social networking tools, relying on said tools to advocate significant change will end up in a losing battle or inefficient result.

A big reason, Gladwell postulates, is that social networks are at their core good at increasing participation but inefficient at execution. It’s easy to hit the “like” button on Facebook to agree that “I support Darfur victims,” or “down with big government,” but it’s another thing to put your literal neck on the line — as the protestors in South Carolina and Iran did.

So, it will be interesting how this social network aspect affects today’s Tea Party. Unlike in 2008, when the Obama campaign made history through social network participation, the Tea Party has no official head, no official hierarchy. The Tea Party seems to be more of a network of independent operators, not a movement orchestrated by a small group of decision-makers with a clear agenda and defined strategy and goals.

For all the “populism” put forth by Obama and his supporters on Facebook, Twitter, et. al., there was a distinct hierarchy — strategic decisions backed up with execution by people who were in charge and accountable to higher-ups. Not so with the Tea Party.

So, at the risk of sounding cliche, we are entering another new experiment in politics and technology. Social networking is giving people the chance to participate merely through the click of a button. But by lowering the barrier to participation to the “least inconvenience,” will change actually manage to surface?

  • quanticle

    The Tea Party seems to be more of a network of independent operators, not a movement orchestrated by a small group of decision makers with a clear agenda…

    I predict that this will be the downfall of the Tea Party when it comes to policy. Unlike movements that actually did produce social change (the civil rights movement being the most prominent example), the Tea Party movement cannot succinctly state its demands. It seems to be novelty and rhetoric driven (much like the Anonymous protests against Scientology), with people coming out more to socialize and demonstrate solidarity than to push for change.

    In other words, I don't see any Tea Party members or leaders willing to get down into the policy weeds and enunciate what their goals are and what their plan is for achieving the goals. Why? Because the Tea Party seems to be more about signaling (in the sociological and economic sense) than about genuine reform. People are joining the Tea Party because the cool kids (e.g. Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck) are doing it. There's no way the cool kids would be caught dead discussing actual policy, because that wouldn't be, well, cool.

  • Jim Harper

    I don't know who you are, quanticle, but I find it interesting that sophisticated political types are defining success with reference to sophisticated politics.

    Why interpret economic and sociological signaling as failure? Because the word “Party” is in the moniker, does the Tea Party movement have to be an equivalent to the Republican or Democratic political parties? Of course not.

    Framing the Tea Party a different way — as a group of people who prefer self-government to what we're getting — and the cohesion/signaling they're doing has been entirely successful.

  • Gideon Rosenblatt

    I love the debate that Gladwell's article is now stirring. It is high time for the world of online activism to start asking these hard questions about impact – real, on-the-ground impact.

    That said, we can not afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In my view, the problem with online social networking tools has less to do with the tools themselves – and more to do with how organizations fail to connect their social network organizing with their efforts to deepen their relationships with people.

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