The value and importance of “social media” and “social networks” continue to be major topics in all sorts of discourse communities these days. Friend and fellow blogger Andrew Miller drew my attention today to a recent essay by Malcolm Gladwell (“Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” The New Yorker, 4 October 2010) which throws some pretty hard stones at some of the most important claims made in recent years by apologists of Twitter, Facebook, and the like.
I won’t rehash Gladwell’s piece, because I think he presents his case pretty convincingly. He sketches the still-remarkable large-scale organization of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, and contrasts it with the easy connectivity of today’s digital society. As Gladwell sees it, the participants in the Civil Rights efforts had much to lose personally: their bodily safety was unquestionably in jeopardy because of their involvement, and those that persevered did so in part because they had other people they knew personally also committed to working to further the cause of justice.
He does not see the much-touted power of Twitter to organize the forces of popular democracy as all it is made out to be, and certainly not the equal of what those earlier organized efforts were capable of. He puts this largely down to the very different structural realities in play: the Civil Rights efforts were organized in a very hierarchical fashion, while the social networks of today are inherently devoid of any hierarchy. This is both their beauty and, when it comes to meaningful activism, their weakness. “Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority,” Gladwell writes, “they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?” The same challenges, in short, that face ideological anarchists when they gather in communities. Consensus is a noble goal, but bitterly hard to achieve in any sizable group: a lamentable facet of the human condition.
So there is certainly power in social networks: the power to easily connect hundreds, thousands, even millions in a startling short span of time. But those connections can evaporate as quickly as they came into being, and it will only be if they can be forged into and alloyed with other elements of successful popular movements of recent history that these networks can truly be said to have the power to alter the political landscape. Without that, are you likely to stand before a firing squad next to someone you follow on Twitter?