In perhaps one of those quirks of timing – which make me wonder if indeed the world is ‘run’ by someone with an almost Machiavellian sense of mirth – Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on social media hit the blogosphere a few days after twitter was leading the way in breaking news of bomb blasts during Nigeria’s 50th year anniversary celebrations. True to type, the response to his article has been immediate and extensive, but largely critical. I suspect that this is to be expected – most people who would write a blog, or tweet, or use foursquare would feel personally chastised by the words that Gladwell offered.
The crux of Gladwell’s argument is that potentially high-risk activism is grown through strong-tie connections – people are more likely to persist with causes they are personally invested in – than through soft-tie ones. And persistence, often through the risk of significant personal danger, is the stuff that spawns revolutions. Amongst the studies, anecdotes, and scenarios he references, the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 stands out for providing the ‘evidence’ for the strong-tie hypothesis. Upon analyzing the close connections of the dropouts from the program as against the connections of those who stayed in, Doug McAdam surmised;
All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi.
If Gladwell has erred – and I use that word loosely – it is in offering a contrast between soft and strong tie connections instead of analyzing the potential for synergy between both methods. By also ignoring the very real potential for soft-tie connections to develop into strong ties, he has us locked into an either-or paradigm, instead of looking at both soft and strong ties as means to the same end. Grassroots mobilization – one to one contact – has its place, but so does disseminating information. The very nature of social media – its intrinsic democracy and near ubiquity of delivery -makes it a great tool for quickly getting the word out. I suspect, that if the Civil Rights movement was birthed in this age, it may well have been tweeted. It is a distinct possibility that access to critical information may be more important in a given context than organizing a physical sit-in. The true paradigm is thus one of synergy – where the unique selling points of both worlds are allied to achieve the common goal. Social media may well not start the revolution, it may – to borrow another Gladwellian concept – cause the tipping point; a critical mass of informed citizenry.
It is perhaps apt, that we leave the last word to our very own Aloofar over at NigeriansTalk.org
…if we must tweet the desired change, at least on a grand scale, the strategy must be right. It must be an all-involving, well-coordinated one that brings together everyone, both online and offline, in a manner that registers our interests as one voice.