“Social media can’t provide what social change has always required. (1) The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Social networks are effective at increasing participation – by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. There is strength in weak ties but weak ties seldom lead to high risk activism. (2) Social media are not about hierarchical organization. If you are taking on a powerful and organized entity, you have to be a hierarchy, as with the civil rights movement which was more like a military campaign than a contagion.”
–Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker (Oct. 4, 2010)
Social media has attracted millions (billions?) of followers. With Twitter you can learn instantly what others are doing and saying and tell many people quickly what is on your mind. With Facebook you can add acquaintances, manage them, and efficiently stay in touch with them.
A group like Garden State Equality, for example, uses social media to increase participation, pass along news, solicit donors, and promote its issues. However, it is a hierarchical organization which operates with considerable precision. People who attended ME events at the State House in December and January were aware that there was a large staff to direct traffic, warn people against inadvertently passing on information to the opponents, provide T-shirts to make the cause visible, select specific individuals to meet with specific legislators, make last-minute phone calls to legislators, occupy as many seats as possible in meeting rooms, etc. GSE did a magnificent job of implementing its strategy through hierarchical planning, organization and control of events.
In another case, in late September Newark students set up a facebook page What’s Wrong in Our Schools That $100 Mill Could Fix? This group describes itself as “created to bring awareness to the issues most fail to talk about when it comes to Newark NJ’s education system. It is not JUST ABOUT MONEY it is about believing in the students of Newark and providing us with more opportunity.” – a worthy mission. The page has 546 members. About 60 comments have been posted, and a lively discussion with divergent points-of-view has emerged. The site provides an important opportunity to air Newark student education concerns. However, it shows no signs of a specific agenda nor of leading a frontal attack on powerful entrenched city leaders. Berkley students did achieve change in their “Free Speech” more hierarchical movement.
Let’s not oversell social media. As an unreconstructed activist, I appreciate social media, but I value committed, purposeful, hierarchical organizations even more. What are your thoughts on today’s role of social media in politics?