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Is Social Networking Useless for Social Change? A Response to The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell

What if anything is the potential contribution of web-based "social networking" to social movements and social change?

[This article is dedicated to the late Tim Costello, who taught us so much about social movements and organization.]

An October 4  New Yorker  article by Malcom Gladwell, " Small Change: Why the Revolution Will not be Tweeted" poses an important question: What if anything is the potential contribution of web-based "social networking" to social movements and social change? The article's answer, drawing primarily on an account of the civil rights movement, is that social movements that are strong enough to impose change on powerful social forces require both strong ties among participants and hierarchical organizations -- the opposite of the weak ties and unstructured equality provided by social networking websites.

Gladwell deserves credit for kicking off a discussion of this question, but that discussion needs to go far beyond the answers he provides, both in conceptual clarity and in historical perspective. This is a modest contribution to that discussion.

For starters, a bit of conceptual clarification. Social networking websites are not a form of organization at all; they are a means of communication. Comparing Twitter to the NAACP is like comparing a telephone to a PTA. They are not the same thing, they don't perform the same kind of functions and therefore their effectiveness or lack thereof simply can't be compared.   

There are other category problems as well. "Small Change" juxtaposes "networks" and "hierarchies." It conflates "strong ties" with "hierarchical" organizations. It denies that strong ties can occur as part of networks.These three conceptual presuppositions, which underlie the article's concrete historical analysis, deserve some serious reconsideration.

Economists and social scientists have traditionally divided organizations into "markets" and "hierarchies." Both coordinate multiple players, but in different ways. Markets are based on decentralized exchanges that lead to coordination by "feedback" from past transactions. (People raise or lower their prices based on how much demand there has been for what they are selling, leading in theory to the production of the right amount of different kinds of stuff.) Hierarchies -- armies and corporations, for example -- are based on a centralized control structure that plans coordinated activity and then commands subordinates to implement their assigned pieces of it.

More recently, some interpreters have pointed out that there is a third form, which they have dubbed "networks." Networks coordinate by means of the sharing of information and voluntary mutual adjustment among participants. They are different from markets because their planning is proactive and based on knowledge of other participants' intentions and capabilities, rather than on feedback from past transactions. They are different from hierarchies because their decision-making is decentralized and voluntary rather than centralized and authoritative.

How do the historical experiences of the civil rights movement analyzed in "small change" look in the light of such a clarified set of categories? There has been a vast amount of historical research on the history of the civil rights movement over the past few years. Visible actions like marches, sit-ins, and bus boycotts rested on a deep foundation of culture, social linkages, and accumulated experience of struggle in Black communities in the South. These connections, stretching over generations and diverse spheres of life, were the mulch from which the civil rights movement emerged -- or, perhaps more aptly, became visible to others on the outside. These linkages can be appropriately described as local community networks -- means of coordinating action based in information sharing rather than on either on a market or a command hierarchy.

Far from being able to command the action of these local networks, national civil rights leaders and organizations were largely dependent on them. In general, local leaders made the decision of whether, for example, to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) into town, and they were generally able to veto strategic decisions they did not agree with. They used the national leadership and organizations for their own purposes at least as much as the other way around. This picture represents anything but a hierarchy in which national leaders and organizations (or even local ones) were able to command participation the way it is done in an army, a corporation, or a similar "hierarchical organization."