Category Archives: Virality

A Dragonfly Lands in New York: A Response to Gladwell in The New Yorker

Photo of New York City SkyscraperThis week, the Internet has been buzzing in response to Malcom Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article on the inability of social media to cause meaningful social change. Contrasting present online social activism with the strictly meatspace activism of the Sixties, The revolution, he says, will not be tweeted. The ties created by social networking are too weak to have an impact, and the lack of structure and leadership across networks leads to the inability of network groups to strategize and follow through on goals, resulting in very little actual activism taking place by so-called supporters.

The discussion spurred by The New Yorker article around the power of social media has been noteworthy and productive (see the dialogue over at The New York TimesThe Atlantic, HuffPo as well as on Beth Kanter’s blog on networked nonprofits). Gladwell agrees in the live chat [transcript] he did as a follow-up. We were honored to be brought, along with Clay Shirky into the conversation by Gladwell himself, and forwarded him our thoughts earlier this week.  We thought we’d also share them here with you as well.

1. What is the mechanism by which social media helps infectious action occur? Gladwell argues that social networks are effective at increasing participation, but only by reducing the level of motivation that participation requires. Indeed, lowering the bar and making it easier for people to participate is one mechanism – and an important one. However, there are at least two other complimentary mechanisms at work. In some cases, as in the story that gave rise to The Dragonfly Effect, the level of motivation actually increases when people subscribe to a well-designed cause, which in turn increases participation in that cause (independent of ability). Where does motivation come from? It is generated in part by the underlying story and in part by the social network that enables that story to be told.  Humans are after all much more social animals than rational ones and are highly influenced by social cues. And where are you likely to find more personally relevant social cues than embedded in a network of your closest friends and contemporaries?

2. Does social media have a dark side? Indeed, the frenetic, attention-starved world of the social web can confound meaningful social change (see our article on the topic in Fast Company, The Darker Side of Social Technology). However it is also true that there has never before been a time that one individual, with no money or any real resources, could so simply and quickly find a national or even global voice. There are stories that people want to share and stories that people want to hear. Social media allows the people who have stories but no resources finally have their stories heard.

3. When can social media fuel social change – effectively, powerfully and quickly? Finally, the idea of the ripple effect – that a small, simple act could create big change – is powerful.  Social media provides the the conduit for the ripples as illustrated by the each of the stories we recount in the book and on our “Dragonfly in Action” page on this site. Friends of Sameer Bhatia recruited over 24,000 bone marrow donors in under 11 weeks through a well-executed social media campaign, resulting in an estimated 250+ lives saved to date by bone marrow matches from those donors alone. More than 15,000 Lemonade stands were opened to raise money for childhood cancer through Alex’s Lemonade Stand, driven by Facebook messages, email and Tweets. More than $1,000,000 was raised in 2009 through Twitter by CharityWater, an organization that funds well-building to bring clean drinking water to Africa and has a strong and dynamic online presence. Each of these efforts began with a focused message and a powerful story, and was able to reach a wide audience and make a big impact amplified through the power of social technologies.

Join in the conversation in our comments section below: What did you think about Gladwell’s article? Under what conditions are social media effective in spurring infectious action? Where do they fall short?