Does social media make social activism easy?

Civil rights movement - lunch counterCan social media become an effective tool for influencing mass behavior – for creating or nourishing social activist movements?  Plenty of social media evangelists believe this capability has already been demonstrated –with the rise of the Tea Party movement or in candidate Obama’s presidential campaign. But does information exchange online correlate with behavior change?  Maybe the social bonds we develop online do not lead to actual social activism but only to a more bland form of social networking which we mistake as ‘activism’. So argues Malcolm Gladwell in his recent New Yorker article – Small Change, Why the Revolution Will not be Tweeted.

I discussed exactly this issue previously in a post about an MIT study showing that although  information spreads faster in the high quantity Facebook like social media networks actual behavioral change in these groups comes slower than in smaller, closer, strong tie social networks. 

How do true believers in social media reconcile this contradiction. Well, one way some make it go away is by dumbing down the definition of activism so that easy actions, like signing an online petition are equated with very difficult and high risk actions that are a necessary part of real social activism.

As a case in point, Gladwell compares the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s which required real physical courage and a high level of commitment with our current idea of successful social engagement-our new activism lite, if you will:  “Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” We confuse retweeting a post by our favorite blogger with driving through Mississippi as a civil rights activist in 1960 and literally risking life and limb.

Gladwell says:

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro [North Carolina] in 1960.”

Gladwell goes on to make the point that as far as social activism is concerned we’re stuck with these weak ties and they don’t really lead to action: “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

In another recent article about social media and activism  author William Powers acknowledges Gladwell’s point but looks for middle ground:

Twitter and Facebook aren’t going to save the world. But when used alongside other tools of human connectedness -- including some very old ones, like the face-to-face conversations, meetings and protests that drove the civil rights movement -- the new technologies can be extremely useful.

It's easy to fall into either blind evangelism of social media or luddite rejection. No technology has changed everything. As powerful as it is the internet won’t do that either. But it may gradually change the way we develop our real world strong ties.

We need to come back to an obvious truth. To redirect behavior, toward whatever the goal,  is not a networking numbers game, it’s quality not quantity. This has been obscured because of marketers demand for access to the largest possible audience—a la Facebook. As UC Berkeley lecturer Howard Rheingold puts it: “Those who gain the know-how to transform networks into movements might gain the keys to power -- for better or worse -- in coming decades.”

Mainsail through time