Malcolm Gladwell has been recognized by sociologists at being adept at combining social science and journalism. In a recent New Yorker piece, Gladwell is at it again, this time tackling the issue of whether participation in phenomena like Facebook and Twitter can lead to substantial social movements. Gladwell is skeptical:
But it 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 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. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.
Gladwell argues that the kind of weak ties (citing Mark Granovetter’s important article from the 1970s) that social networks are built upon are not the kind of networks that lead to substantial action.
I would be interested to hear how social movement theorists would respond to this piece. Could social media be adapted or altered in a way that could lead to substantial change?
Also, Gladwell is contributing to a larger debate: can the Internet be harnessed for social good? There is little doubt that Internet access gives people a lot of information and perhaps the opportunity to build a weak-ties network. But does it typically lead to more productive citizens or more engaged citizens? Where does WikiLeaks fit into this – is that activism or something else?