In this week’s New Yorker, the estimable Malcolm Gladwell takes, among other things, umbrage at the idea that tools of social media, like Twitter and Facebook, can be used for social activism. This idea has been popular for over a year now, dating back at least to the so-called “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova last year, as well as the site’s role in Iran’s 2009 elections. Gladwell, however, insists the “weak ties” promoted by these sites can never effect real social change. He compares it to the civil rights activism of the 1960s, in which “participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going” down South. This kind of activism—what Gladwell calls “high-risk activism”—is about strong ties.
As usual, Gladwell’s piece is brilliantly written and very compelling, but I’m afraid he falls into the same trap that many critics of modern social media are stuck in: this false dichotomy between “strong” and “weak” ties. It is indeed true that Facebook and Twitter are not built to maintain “strong ties” (like the ties between the four Greensboro students who began the Woolworth’s sit-ins, who were roommates). In fact, Gladwell provides as good a description of the uses of these sites as I’ve seen:
“Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with.”
The mistake, though, is viewing any tie that isn’t “strong” as a weak one. The truth is that the relationships created by Twitter/Facebook/et. al had no equivalent even a few years ago, let alone during the civil rights protests of the 1950s and ’60s, so it’s impossible to classify them with such a primitive distinction. Gladwell insists that social media tools would not have helped, for instance, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, saying, “Of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?” If Gladwell is serious with this inquiry, then it speaks to quite a poverty of imagination. To pretend that weekly communication with a close-knit community of churchgoers is effectively equivalent to near-instant communication with a worldwide group of supporters is just plain wrong.
Of course, Gladwell is right to question the extent to which we are in the midst of a “revolution” in social activism. The effects of Twitter and Facebook on the Moldova Revolution and the Iranian elections were greatly exaggerated in the West (Gladwell quotes Golnaz Esfandiari as questioning why “no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”). In essence, Likes and Retweets do not constitute social activism, and people are all too quick to congratulate the moral purpose of social media because they joined a Darfur Facebook group.
But the limitations on these causes have to do with a lot more than the limitations of Facebook and Twitter. As Gladwell has a habit of doing, he’s seizing on the complicated explanation when there’s a much simpler one staring him in the face. You see, Darfur and Iran are very far away. They aren’t even on this continent. Therefore it’s much easier to be complacent about those causes. By contrast, the progenitors of the Woolworth lunch counter protests (why is it that these protests lend themselves to such horrible analogies?) went to school about a mile away. As for the people closer to the events in question and more directly affected, Gladwell acknowledges that very few Twitter accounts even exist in Moldova. Perhaps the shortcomings of these movements, then, were less about relying on Twitter too much, and more about the lack of availability of these tools to those who could use them the most.
Just because Facebook and Twitter can’t replace social activism doesn’t mean these tools can’t greatly augment it. Gladwell, like so many social media critics, gets caught up in this “confuse vs. augment” battle: “The evangelists of social media…seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend.” Listen up, Gladwell, along with any other critic of social media: Nobody who actually uses Facebook thinks that. Stop arguing this point, because nobody really believes that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend. Facebook friendships obviously can’t replicate the kind of connection that motivated people to go participate in civil rights demonstrations, but they can play other integral roles in the process of social activism. Activism hinges on the spread of information (like announcing the start of a boycott, or publicizing carpools to replace buses, or making known which establishments are practicing segregation) and connecting people with similar views (like coordinating the many organizations that need to participate in a boycott, or allowing outside support for a regional cause), and Facebook and Twitter are better at these two tasks that arguably any innovation since the printing press. Social media obviously can’t do it all for social justice, but it can do a whole lot.