In the debate over the influence social media has in steering social and/or political movements, the assumption seems generally to be that, yes, the ‘socially-engaged’ businesses, philanthropies, NGOs, etc., have found meaningful ways to leverage SM to further their causes. Two oft-cited examples are the impact that groups like MoveOn.org had in the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and the news of political violence imposed by Ahmadinejad that leaked out of Iran via cell phones and Twitter accounts after his contested re-election.
Nevertheless, a powerful counter-argument was presented by Malcom Gladwell in The New Yorker Magazine a couple of weeks ago that posits that social media tend to amplify the sense of change, not the actual change itself.
And so, the rebuttal:
Mr. Gladwell’s argument is that SM can help bring people to an issue, if the issue does not require much personal sacrifice or significant money (he cites small-dollar donations, which he admits can add up, and the examples in The Dragonfly Effect that we summarized in yesterday’s argument for the pro). Those who engage through their Twitter accounts and Facebook ‘friends’ might feel like they are part of a larger movement, he continues, but their engagement is largely through their cell phones and laptops, while they sit safely and anonymously at their bus stops, coffee breaks, or desks.
His critique of the so-called ‘Twitter Revolutions’ in Iran (later that summer) calls to the floor not so much social media as the lazy traditional media who culled comments and reactions from others’ SM sites (many of whom were on the fringes, at best, of what was going on in either country).(spring 2009) and
Social networks are critical for social change, continues Gladwell, but those networks must be personal, not virtual, and the ‘friends’ must be willing to put themselves in a high-risk situation to cohere through the hardships of meaningful change. He contrasts the ‘revolutions’ noted above with the civil-rights movement that began at a Woolworths lunch counter in 1960:
The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer [the summer of 1960 as civil-rights groups flocked to the south to protest segregation] dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.
These people risked their lives (and some were lost) in the early 1960s. Contrast that, as Gladwell does, with “The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition [which] has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.”
Tomorrow we present our latest interview for the Perspectives series, in which we have the pleasure of interviewing Kristen Cambell, Director of New Media of the National Conference on Citizenship. Please join us and we shall see where this Millennial sits on the spectrum of ideas about social media and meaningful change. Next week we would like to weigh in on the debate, but for now, we also wish you and yours safe travels and a Happy Thanksgiving!