Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gladwell on the limits of social media

Malcolm Gladwell, the man who came up with the "tipping point" hypothesis, is someone worth listening to. Writing in The New Yorker he challenges the conventional wisdom that social media is effecting a revolution in social and political activism. Gladwell presents the civil rights movement as a case study of how revolutionary change happened before e-mail, Facebook and Twitter -- and uses it to illustrate the weakness of social media in getting people to take action beyond clicking the "Like" button on Facebook.

As Gladwell see it effective movements of social change -- like the one led by Martin Luther King in the 60s -- require the kind of commitment fostered by the "strong ties" of close personal connection. For example if you had a best friend who was going to Mississippi during Freedom Summer you were more likely to go and risk your neck than if you didn't have that kind of connection. The same principle holds true whether you're talking protest movements or terrorist groups. On the other hand what social media does best is foster "weak ties" which are great for a lot of things, but not for rousing people to take action that requires real commitment and sacrifice.

He explains:

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. 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. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. 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. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

. . . .

[Social media} makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.

I'm interested in what the implications of this critique are for the church. I'm an avid user of Facebook and I administer our church's Facebook page so obviously I'm not against social media. It can be a beneficial tool, but I think the talk about it revolutionizing the way we "do church" is overblown. A cool Facebook page does not an effective church make. If the New Testament tells us anything it's that "strong ties" are just as integral to building the Kingdom as they are to toppling governments. The recipe for creating those ties hasn't changed much in 2000 years. I mean, how did the Apostle Paul plant all those churches without Twitter?!

Jonah Lehrer's friendly critique of Gladwell's conclusions is worth reading too.

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