Whose Ties Are You Calling “Weak”?

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.

34 responses to this post.

  1. […] here to read the ‘activism’ angle, of Malcolms good thoughts, though. Gladwell writes like a […]


  2. What ever happened to MySpace?


  3. Great points all. I wish I could be in on a conversation between you and Gladwell.



  4. Posted by bradenbost on September 28, 2010 at 11:49 AM

    I want to comment on ONE thing you mentioned:

    “Nobody who actually uses Facebook thinks [a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend].”

    Here here. I’m so exhausted by people arguing against technological advancements based on made-up social problems. My post today actually expands on that, if you don’t mind me sharing it with you. It’s actually a response to another Freshly Pressed post from a couple weeks ago . . .



  5. Why does Malcolm Gladwell have such authority on these kinds of issues? Most communications theorists agree on the Mark Granovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties” in the diffusion of information. He argues that information (or an innovation) can be disseminated more broadly when passed through weak ties than strong ones. Your weak ties are more likely to have diverging interests and will pass the information on to people you wouldn’t have though of or even know.


  6. Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful and insightful post.
    It is the first time that I have read or heard anyone state the obvious point that these social networking relationships had no equivalent…
    I am so tired of hearing the argument that Facebook and Twitter do not provide “real” relationships. It is silly. This is a new type of relationship that serves a new purpose.
    I do believe that Social Media is providing never before opportunities for ordinary people to connect and create change… we just haven’t full figured it out yet.
    I have a perfectly normal and healthy network of close friends, and family in my everyday life, but it is only on the internet that I can almost guarantee interaction on any specific topic 24 hrs a day. I do not use these relationships to replace face to face interaction, but to expand the possibilities…


  7. Thank you for writing this up!

    I wanted to say all that, but didn’t have the energy to write it out in a coherent and engaging format. Now I can spread it without having to write it. 🙂



  8. Posted by LYNNAIMA on September 28, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    I do believe that a facebook friend is a real friend in that I chose to set my profile that way. I believe you are doing the same in making broad statements about how users view their profiles. Some of us do use it to stay connected with “real friends”. I do agree with you in that it can be a tool for social activism as exemplified in January after the earthquake in Haiti. A lot of monies were raised via FB and twitter. A nice read. thanks.


  9. Good points, and I agree with the gist of what you’re saying. I think that Gladwell’s mistake is how he labels ties, as if weight is determinable. So much power lies in your network, tangible or virtual. I WILL get an intervew with X company because my friend went to school with the uncle of the HR director the same as the direct friend of that HR director will get an interview, so the strong/weak tie is silly. A tie, is a tie, is a tie, is an ear, is a contact, is a face in the audience, so…


  10. Great points discussed !


  11. Does facebook, Twitter helps only to support social justice. It has also affected world of finance and e-commerce.
    My opinion about this article here.



  12. Posted by blackwatertown on September 28, 2010 at 3:10 PM

    There is a spectrum of activism, and different ways of organising – some more intense and committed, others less so.
    So fine.


  13. I agree with you. Look at the effect that social media has had in the business world. If a business can use Twitter and Facebook to persuade people to use their product, why couldn’t these two platforms be used to for social activism. I guess I can see where someone might be tempted to call the ties made on these platforms weak, but we are living in the digital age and for most of us, this is where we communicate with many of our “strong” ties, just as much as in a face to face interaction.


  14. Posted by Tracy Sestili on September 28, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    OMG – just retweeted this – I very much agree with you. I even wrote a letter to the editor @The New Yorker stating that comparing the analog age to the digital age is like apples and oranges and further, um, I’m pretty sure Barack Obama used social media and we had more African American voters come out than ever in the history of elections. Someone like Gladwell who writes an article like this, does it to either stir up the pot (which it clearly has) or he just doesn’t get it. I go with the latter.


  15. you’re correct, not everything is either strong or weak, there are always shades of gray. Social media is a great tool for spreading the word about something or enlisting help from people who otherwise might not have been aware of the cause. I recently heard about 2 girls in my area raising money for a 5k for Breast Cancer. They are not my real friends, or even Facebook friends, but I heard about them through a casual acquaintance on Facebook, but the cause was real and I ended up donating to help them meet their goal. They made 18k in the end, and most likely because of kind people who re-posted their original pleas for donations.


  16. Posted by Miles Standish on September 28, 2010 at 5:56 PM

    I was with Mr. Gladwell almost all the way through his research-laden article when he lost me at the very end, with his inability to avoid easy sarcasm and a near lover’s embrace of platitude.

    Why did it matter that the people who had their cell phone stolen were “Wall Streeters”? Why does Gladwell defend this miserable waif named “Sasha” by referring to her merely as a “teen-age” girl after she viciously hurled her electronically racist “white ass” comment at those she cold-heartedly stole from?

    This is nothing but the contemptuous form of racism born of guilt at best and contempt at worst.

    While I agree with Mr. Gladwell that the hyper-inflated, self-important promotion of all social networking sites is as bothersome as it is inaccurate, I grow somewhat weary of his apparent desire to resurrect, within the world of electrons, the good old days of street fighting, car burning and name-calling.


  17. Man, that last paragraph really hits it. Nobody on facebook thinks fb friends are the same as real friends. And how do the critics not realize this?


  18. and I thought you were going to write about the tie around his neck. next time . . . Malcolm Gladwell’s fashion . . . sure to be interesting.

    good points, however.


  19. Posted by thewritingt on September 28, 2010 at 8:16 PM

    The idea the “real relationships” cannot be made on Facebook is ridiculous. Three days ago, my sister married a man who she: met once, connected with on Facebook, and got engaged to eight months later, The only reason they have a relationship is because of Facebook.


  20. Posted by fireandair on September 28, 2010 at 8:33 PM

    I’m a bit different — I think Gladwell has a point. I’m less enamored of online friends than I once was about ten years ago. Two people who met and married through FB did not continue their relationship via FB once they married. When that tie was formed, they most likely now share their physical space. Once the relationship became stronger, it was an absolute requirement that it move into the arena where relatively strong ties live: meatspace. Show me a married couple who met online and who continue to have online space as their primary mode of interaction years later, and I may think differently.

    Steering clear of the value judgments inherent in the terms “strong” and “weak, though … I think that online friends can “do activism,” but seem most effective when it’s online activism. Meatspace friends tend to do meatspace activism.


  21. Posted by Ursula on September 29, 2010 at 5:05 AM

    It’s brilliant: The Power of Thinking without Thinking.

    It’s precisely what I have been doing reading your piece. You have showered me with eloquence and thus lulled me in a most welcome sense of security. I don’t care what you say as long as you say it the way you do.

    I don’t “DO” facebook, I don’t tweet but should you ever feel in need of a leader please follow me. As I will follow you. After all, who doesn’t want to move in circles?



  22. Posted by Colin L Beadon on September 29, 2010 at 8:24 AM

    Having just finished reading Tipping Point, Blink, and What the dog saw. Gladwell has brilliant clear sight and I recommend his books, the way he writes, and what he chooses to write and zero in on.
    Interesting and entertaining books for discerning people.


  23. I love the idea of clicking “like” and making the world a better place! (I am an idiot however.)

    I have very few Facebook “Friends” and even fewer “real friends”.

    All relationships need some sort of “environment to meet in”. I have a friend who will only meet me downtown in a very busy coffee shop. Our conversation is innane.

    I like Malcolm’s tie.


  24. Interesting and so true. I committed facebook suicide earlier on in the year – sick of the illusion of being in touch with people without having to make the effort to pick up the phone. I am now back on it again and have only added ‘friends’ who I am in contact with.

    Social networking has opened up a whole world and level of communication. But the good thing is – we can make of it what we will. For a while…..



  25. Posted by sayitinasong on September 29, 2010 at 12:32 PM

    Very good points, and such a well written and informative post. I think Facebook does serve as a very good tool of keeping in touch with people… especially for people like myself who has lived in many countries, it is invaluable to me to keep in touch with all my friends…some long lost friends whom I have made contact again through FB… as a tool for activism… not so convinced….


  26. Posted by Simon on September 29, 2010 at 12:40 PM

    You seem to make a pretty good argument, and I can see this is being enjoyed by other proponents of social media, but I think you’re not actually disagreeing with Gladwell much at all (to such an extent that I wonder if you, and many of the people commenting, actually read his article). The message I picked up from Gladwell’s article was “don’t get complacent; if you want to change the world you need to get off your arse and away from the keyboard.” You don’t actually challenge that.

    Firstly, this article itself is something of a retreat. Though I’m sure you’re articulating long-held opinions, Gladwell’s article was not countering your view that social media can support traditional forms of activism via organisation and spreading awareness. He was taking on the more hyperbolic types who bleat “social media is the future of activism!”. I’ve seen numerous examples of “evangelists” who really should know better over-egging the ability of social media to enact social change. We all have. Gladwell is slapping them in the face and so should you be. Your conclusion, beginning “Activism hinges on the spread of information…” is entirely adopting his point.

    Gladwell actually writes: “There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency.” You say pretty much the same thing.

    The real success of social media “activism” has been lowering the barriers to participation. You don’t directly reference this at all in your article, even though that’s what you’re saying. This particular point was what I found so insightful about Gladwell’s piece. We can argue about the extent to which retweeting, liking or subscribing helps a cause (I would give the fairly weak answer that it’s dependent on the cause), but we can all agree it’s negligible compared to getting involved in a far more active way. The determination needed to get involved in high-risk activism is remarkable and requires tangible, strong support networks unachievable only through social media.

    You don’t help your case by slipping into lazy thinking and contradicting yourself. You say: “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.” But then later go on to say: “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.”

    The supposed near-instant communication with worldwide supporters is demonstrably weak if, as you later go on to say, only local people will be motivated by your message. In fact, the ability to reach people worldwide has little value according to you. Also, as I’m sure many champions of causes that have not hit the media spotlight will tell you, it can be bloody hard to reach a sizable audience. And once you’ve entered the echo chamber (or, connecting people with similar views as you say), the accomplishment is again useless unless you can get these people to take their support offline. This is where “weak” ties fail and “strong” ties are needed.

    Your attempt to spin the over-exaggerated impact of Twitter is quite a stretch. “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.”

    Perhaps. Or perhaps everyone was too bloody scared they’d get shot.

    I’m not sure how wise it’d be to try and organise a revolution via public messages. “Shit. Army following my tweets. Pls disregard prvs msgs”. And If there isn’t 3G network coverage in these regions, you’d also get into a situation where people can’t march the streets as they have to stay at home on their wired internet connection to know what to do.

    I’ll remind you of Gladwell’s conclusion. You should be able to see that your arguments are not really different from anything he’s saying.

    “[Social media] is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

    The only real way in which you seem to depart from this commonsense wisdom is by blithely speculating that maybe the people of Moldova would have been better off with more Twitter accounts.

    Gladwell never says social media has no use with regards to certain types of activism. Instead of trying to pick a fight with him over an uncontroversial (and fairly obvious) article, if you care about social change you should take up the call that armchair activism is simply not enough.


  27. I really admire your thoughts. Facebook really keep people connected wherever they are…


  28. Gladwell typifies the responses I hear in business to any mention of social media. People dismiss them because they don’t understand how they can be applied in a business context. I regularly hear comments like ‘why should I tell everyone what I had for breakfast?’ and ‘I’m not going to bother with LinkedIn and Twitter because nothing replaces a good face-to-face meeting.’ These people are completely missing the point of social media and I’m convinced that their scepticism is born of lack of understanding of how these media can be used. And that lack of understanding is perfectly understandable as we are still very much in an experimental phase – most of the ways in which social media can be used to help businesses have probably not yet even been developed. Now represents an opportunity for organisations to get involved and pioneer the use of social media for business.

    This is not equivalent to email replacing the fax machine. It is more comparable to the benefit to email users development of email clients that integrate contact details.


  29. Very interesting article. Thanks so much for breaking down your thoughts of what Gladwell had to say.

    I’m surprised only one comment’er mentioned that Obama used social media to help him in the 2008 election.

    I’d like to think that in the years to come, things like facebook and twitter will be used for positive campaigns. 🙂

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage


  30. […] special thanks to John S, for his blog post Whose Ties Are You Calling Weak” for focusing my attention on the […]


  31. […] probably a bad rhetorical question. But fortunately later that day I found a nice quote on the No Pun Intended blog in response to Gladwell’s assertion, which I also tweeted because it expressed my personal […]


  32. […] Strong Ties, Weak Ties: Can Social Media Make Social Change? […]


  33. […] S wasn’t the only one to take on Malcolm Gladwell’s social media bashing. The Hairpin did it this week, from the perspective of […]


  34. Man, that last paragraph really hits it. Nobody on facebook thinks fb friends are the same as real friends. And how do the critics not realize this?


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