The recently published Malcolm Gladwell article dismissing those who claim social media is both a technological and social revolution, “Small Change,” has been generating buzz all across the Internet. Gladwell’s main contention:
The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. 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 marvelous 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.
While it may seem that Gladwell set up an unfair comparison to the Civil Rights Movement, it can’t be forgotten that many social media evangelists got that ball rolling. “Twitter Revolutions,” mass uprising coordinated through Twitter, are a fiction created by the Western media evangelists, as Gladwell takes the time to point out, while thoroughly eviscerating social media’s actual role in social activism in Moldova and Iran.
But what if we take a more comprehensive look at what Twitter and other social media has done? It may not lead to the social and legal revolutions of the Civil Rights Movement, but might it be leading some other legal revolution or just law breaking under the guise of social revolution?
When civil disobedience was employed during the Civil Rights Movement, it was used to end segregationist and racist legal regimes. Activists had to actively place themselves in danger to do so. Is social media’s Woolworth’s going to be online music piracy? Anil Dash, a self-proclaimed social evangelist, cites this as one of the strongest examples of social media activism. But are current copyright regimes really comparable to Jim Crow Laws? Why do these same “activists” not commit acts of civil disobedience by taking physical copies of the same music, books and other media they are so quick to accumulate digitally?
It may come back to the strength of the ties which were a staple of the Civil Rights Movement but have failed to form online. Digital hackers and internet pirates are almost completely anonymous — ties so weak to anything they almost do not exist — and tend to use this anonymity as an excuse for law-breaking in the name of revolution.
Many of the positive benefits of social media aren’t actually inherent in social media. There are examples of Twitter leading to the arrest of those threatening violence or perverts on trains. Unfortunately Twitter gives a platform to the violent and introduces an unnecessary intermediate step toward catching the pervert. The same went for two girls who used Facebook to call for help rather than actually call for help. And the student who tweeted his way out of jail. Traditional phone calls, text messages, or other communication could have achieved the same results.
As long as anonymity is allowed to reign supreme in the digital world, it will remain easier for those with social harm in mind to meet and prosper online than in real life. The weak ties promulgate a sense that no one is really watching. As Gladwell points out, the opposite continues to be true about social activists of the more positive variety, but thankfully the Civil Rights Movement has had a much greater lasting effect than anything social media appears ready to offer up.