Rear Left


Posted in Dog Food, Media & Movements by rearleft on October 1, 2010


Malcolm Gladwell‘s recent piece for the New Yorker is getting a lot of play, ironically, on Twitter and Facebook. As much as I’d prefer not to be yet another (late) addition to what has already become a tired conversation over a short few days, the fact that I’m currently studying network theory and attempting to apply it to social movements means that this is one meme that this node can’t help but percolate.

While there is much that I agree with in the piece, and much that I don’t, what struck me most was his overly simplistic application of network analysis to a set of extremely diverse and complex situations. Granovetter‘s The Strength of Weak Ties (1973) introduced the theory that the transmission of innovation in networks occurs when bridges are made via weak ties between clusters of nodes (actors, people) that share strong ties. Among these strongly tied cliques, innovation is stifled by the very similarity of the group members, and it takes the input of information from other areas of a network, accessed through a weak tie bridge to facilitate the spread of innovation.

Gladwell’s hypothesis, as I read it, is that digital social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook are comprised only of weak ties, and that what he terms as “high risk activism”, such as direct action in the face of violent, oppressive regimes, is performed by groups of actors with strong ties. Therefore, social networking sites cannot facilitate system-challenging activism. Furthermore, he argues that networks are heterarchies, and that only hierarchies produce effective political organisations.

There is no way that I can write a fully thought out and articulated response to Gladwell’s argument here, but here are a few points that serve as a starting place for why I think that his piece contains a kernel of truth (Twitter alone is not revolutionary) surrounded by poorly applied network theory and a limited understanding of social movements.

  1. It is an oversimplification to say that “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties”. Social networking sites, especially Facebook, have grown to such a scale that in some communities the social graphs that they represent are approaching representation of the offline, “real world” social graph. Users of these sites are developing complex modes of differentiating between their relationships with one another in ways that reflect and maintain the nuanced gradation of types and degrees of relations that make up their social networks both on- and offline.
  2. “High risk activism” by small groups with strong ties does not lead to social change without prior and post support by networks supported by weak ties. To only look at the “action” phase of social movement organising is to ignore the majority of work and forces that go into bringing about that action, and the follow-through on then using that action as a catalyst for change. It is true that when involved in high-stakes, potentially violent confrontations with organised institutions of power, it is preferable to do so in clusters that have a high degree of trust facilitated by strong ties, but it is wrong to suggest that the social relations of such clusters permeate the entire organising networks from which the tactical and strategic formulation of coordinated action arises. And after the action, it is not the strong ties of the group involved in the action that promote percolation of change through a broader social network, potentially leading to a cascade effect that precipitates a phase transition in the system as a whole, it is the dissemination of new possibilities from node to node, cluster to cluster, with significant leaps across distances in the network made possible by bridging weak ties.
  3. Gladwell seems to ignore the role of communications technologies in the civil rights movement. His account of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins are told as if the growth of the protest (and counter-protest) over the days that followed the initial action, and the spread of similar protests throughout the South in the following weeks were all the result of face-to-face contacts. The role of various media – telephones, telegraph, newspapers, radio, and television is absent. Surely in a discussion of how contemporary media support or inhibit social activism the comparison with communications media of previous struggles is relevant.

As the language of network theory becomes popularised through the work of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Anderson, and Clay Shirky, we can expect to see discussions of all sorts of phenomena being discussed in the jargon of ties and flows, cliques and cascades. It will be important for people who have engaged deeply with these models and the social and technical subjects to which they are applied to keep their rampant misapplication in check.


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