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?

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