Strong ties, weak ties

The Green Revolution in Iran. The Arab Spring. The Occupy Movement. These were popular movements heralded as “social media” revolutions, revolutions that showed the power of networks like Twitter and Facebook to change the world.

A couple of years ago, Malcolm Gladwell, of Tipping Point fame, penned a scandalous essay subtitled “Why the revolution will not be tweeted” — scandalous because it treated rather rudely some very cherished notions, and upset more than a few Internet futurists. It’s worth a read.

Gladwell contrasted popular movements built on strong personal ties that create organizations with those that are instead networks of loosely-connected peers. The Civil Rights movement versus the Save Darfur Coalition. You may not remember the latter, but apparently at its peak it counted more than a million members. Unfortunately, Darfur was not saved. According to Gladwell, the coalition raised approximately nine cents per member in donations.

The nub of his argument was that forcing substantive change over a recalcitrant status quo requires organization, which in turn requires a substantive commitment from the movement’s members, which in turn grows out of shared experiences and real-world relationships — strong ties that lay the foundation for risk-taking, for investing time and effort in an uncertain outcome.

The Darfur Coalition was a network based, as networks generally are, on the weak ties between people who really don’t know each other, and share very little. Actually, this is the point of a network: a loose organization of peers that can accomplish something if it involves little more than brief communications, albeit very many of them. In the same way, one might instructively contrast the legacy public telephone system, a very hierarchical system, with the Internet. But maybe that’s just me.

Unsurprisingly, the essay was widely criticized. Some people took it personally, as though Gladwell were impugning a generation, dissing their achievements. It didn’t help that Gladwell’s overly simplified analysis of the complex interplay of groups and actions that went by the name of The Civil Rights Movement, invited plenty of academic tut-tutting, but I think that missed the point.

As revolutions go, Occupy was a resounding dud. The participants — the real, physical participants — had no interest in submitting to a hierarchical organization, and they changed nothing. In a word, they did not care enough about what they were doing to submit to someone else calling the shots. They each wanted their say. They each wanted their own recognition.

This does not mean they were bad people. I’m sure any random sample of Occupy participants, that found itself passengers in an airliner about to make an emergency landing, would quickly submit to the very immediate hierarchy of the cabin crew. Fasten your seatbelts. Bend forward. Put your hands so. And if one of them should refuse, on principal, and get up to saunter down the cabin to show his independence, I’m equally certain his compatriots would tie him to his seat.

Yes, social media can be a tool. But evidently it’s not the revolution. In fact, it may be the reaction.

Here’s something social media, cloud computing, data mining, and the Internet can do: manipulate people. Or, it might create a con job that only promises to manipulate. (Intriguing reads, especially the first.)

The Obama campaign ran an extremely sophisticated IT operation, employing every Web 1.0, Web 2.0, Web-whatever trick in the marketing and behavioral modification book to persuade people to give money, and to vote. (The Romney campaign apparently just pretended to.) And this is something well-run networks are extremely good at: spreading a well-honed, focused message that pushes just the right buttons.

It worked a hell of a lot better than Occupy. The people behind it were masters at what can be done (get people to vote), and what can’t be done (organize them), with weak ties.

So, if you want to change the world, you’ll have to do it the way it’s always been done. The tools and weapons may change, but in the end there is no substitute for organized, disciplined, risk-taking commitment.

And no guarantees.

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