October 10, 2010
The internet has been pretty a-buzz over Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article in the New Yorker. It’s called “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” and it’s generated a lot of backlash. Gladwell’s main argument is that modern social networking – through Facebook and Twitter – won’t translate into revolutionary social activism. He points primarily to the differences between strong ties and weak ties and what type of actions each tie generates. His primary focus is the sit-ins in Greensboro in 1960 and he contrasts that to a recent online campaign to get people to register as bone marrow donors.
So far, I’ve only read a few responses. Angus Johnston provides a critique that follows the 1960s activism theme by contrasting SNCC with SDS and showing the strength of weak ties in organizing. Patrick St. John did a pretty good job of showing how effective decentralized non-hierarchical networks can be. There’s also a good article at Wired that provides some great evidence as to why weak ties are useful for organizing.
I just wanted to provide a short contemporary example that hasn’t been added to the deluge of responses. For years I’ve grown a number of weak ties with friends across the country for an idea that few others share: that a war in a far off place can end with our help. It was called The Rescue. In April of 2009, we tweeted and facebooked our way to tens of thousands of people attending events simultaneously in 100 cities. Some of my friends whom I convinced to initially show up were weak-tie friends. And when the Phoenix event closed up shop and people caravaned to Albuquerque (then Wichita, then Chicago) the weak ties kept me updated as to what was going on. Peruse the #therescue hashtag. Watch “Together We Are Free,” the film about how The Rescue played out over six days and brought 500 people to Chicago. Most of the Rescue Riders started off as weak ties and grew stronger.
Now, spending a week living on parks, vans, and church gyms is one thing. Changing the world can be a bit different, I know. But the attention that peaked with the Rescue carried into something huge. A year-long local lobbying effort led by young people started off with the biggest Africa-related lobbying initiative in Washington history and culminated with the most widely co-sponsored Africa-related bill in modern legislative history. And since the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act passed, we are anxiously awaiting the Obama administration’s response.
As one of the ones who abducted himself, I say that weak ties have power.