Gladwell Round-Up

Stack of NewspapersLast time we blogged about Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on the inability of social media to cause meaningful social change, we linked to a few prominent responses (see: The New York TimesThe Atlantic, HuffPo, Beth Kanter’s blog).

There have been many other great discussions around the web, and we wanted to highlight the best of them here:

In case you missed the article, ReadWriteWeb did a great summary of Gladwell’s main argument.

Jonah Lehrer argues that weak ties, like those built though social media channels, build trust among large groups of people. Citing the work of  sociologist Mark Granovetter, he explains the importance of weak ties: “While Gladwell argues that the flat hierarchies of online networks are a detriment to effective activism…Granovetter points out that leaders of social movements often depend on weak ties to maintain loyalty. He notes that organizations dominated by strong ties tend to produce fragmentation and cliquishness, which quickly leads to the breakdown of trust.”

At techPresident, Nancy Scola points out that Gladwell’s conception of activism is too rigid and needs to take into account the needs of the modern era. In the New Yorker piece, Gladwell compares the amount of commitment needed by lunch counter protesters in the ’60s and people Tweeting in support of social causes in 2010. Scola asks, “But why would we assume that the complex problems facing the modern United States, at least, are best met by the march-in-the-streets activism that greeted the abuses of the 1960s? On a practical level, those problems are different.”

Adding to this point, Zeynep Tufeksi of technosociology says, “The problem isn’t we can’t organize lunch-counter sit-ins or high-risk actions; the problem is they don’t matter much. Our sociality tends to be local the scale of the action required to confront today’s problems is global.”

While Gladwell believes that social change requires more than social media, Lina Srivastavi argues that we should not reject these channels: “Digital tools are now a permanent part of our toolkit (whether we’re managing discrete actions, campaigns or movements), and can be leveraged effectively whenever they are appropriate and accessible. Sometimes they’re necessary to a campaign and sometimes they are not (particularly where their use would jeopardize the safety of the activists or the viability of the campaign). But that’s it. They’re tools.”

Echoing the concept of the Ripple Effect, Chris Hughes counters: “Few are naïve enough to believe that saying “I care about the Darfur conflict” (to use one of Gladwell’s examples) solves the issue.  It’s a public statement of support, an indication that a person is willing to help.  Just because someone says they support a cause does not mean they are not willing to take further action.”

Adding to this point, Katya Andresen asks, “is online organizing not resulting in more change because of its intrinsic limitations or because our sector hasn’t quite sorted out how to build relationships with online supporters effectively, thereby creating offline action? It seems to me the ideal is to be doing both, together, in concert.

Finally, Steve Denning gives 5 interesting counter-arguments.

As always, we want to know what you think.  Please add to the discussion.