On Gladwell on social media

Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in the New Yorker magazine a few weeks back on online social networks and social change. It was interesting enough to think twice about and wonder what implications it had, if any, for EPIC Global Challenge.

Leaving aside for the moment the conflicting information we already have about the author, namely (1) he is extremely intelligent and a good craftsman as a writer, and (2) he publishes provocative opinion based on partial evidence disguised as thorough analysis, an approach which sells books well (cf. The Tipping Point). We like Gladwell, and we too want to provoke interesting conversation, although not with false or incomplete information or wild leaps in logic. Let’s just take his article at face value, for the sake of carrying forward a constructive conversation, rather than getting mired in parsing his argument. (Unless you’re into that – in which case, email me separately.) (Opinions expressed in this post are my own, obviously, and not those of EPIC as an org.)

Alongside a pretty good overview of the Civil Rights movement and some worthwhile supporting bits about other movements (successful and failed), Gladwell makes three main points in this piece:
1.  “[Online] social networks are effective at increasing participation – by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” I.e. the medium is very good for mass-awareness-raising by a certain limited degree, but not for gaining anyone’s deeply invested commitment to a movement. He gives the U.S. Civil Rights movement as an example of high-risk, high-investment participation, and Facebook-based Darfur fund raising as an example of large numbers of people with almost no actual investment.

To this I say: No contest. The revolutionary thing about the Internet as a whole is its role as a delivery mechanism for tons of information to tons of people. The great thing about social networking online is a smaller version of that. It connects people, even if only a little bit.

EPIC plans to enlist groups of online collaborators to coordinate efforts across religious, ethnic, and national conflict boundaries in order to create peaceful engagement. Does EPIC Global Challenge fit into Gladwell’s statement? Sure, we can get participants, but can we get deeper investment of their effort to create a movement or solve a political conflict? What will we need to do for the answer to be Yes?

2. “Social media are not about hierarchical organization [of the sort the U.S. Civil Rights movement saw in 1960]. [They] are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. … Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose…. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically….” He gives a number of examples.

Does EPIC fit into this statement? Internally as an organization and externally as a widespread network of groups or pods collaborating, how might we avoid the strategic limitations of a “sprawling, leaderless” format? What part of our organization builds the network and what part steers the ship? Once we’ve built a sturdy network, how will it form into coherent working groups?

3. The social-networks model of organizing people “favors the weak-tie [low-investment, low-commitment, low-risk, low-facetime] connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger.” Fair enough, on the surface. He then makes a puzzling leap in logic to say this model “shifts our energies [away] from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

Do we think this statement is true? Is his argument structurally unsound here? Could social networks also give someone access to critical life-saving, game-changing, state-overthrowing information? Do online social networks really undermine in-person organizing?

Is EPIC planning to do things in such a way that won’t just give people access to more information, but more… peace? More productive collaboration across conflict lines?

Are “online social media” being lumped into one single category without any thought given as to the function or organizing idea behind each instance? Is Facebook just like Twitter just like myBarackObama.net just like the Well just like a chatroom just like EPIC?

To be fair, to the author: Judging from some remarks he made in an online followup to this article, it looks like Gladwell’s deeper message is simply: “Don’t think that online social media is going to replace diligent, strategic, in-person organizing for changing the social landscape.” In which case he’s made his point well. I just want to be sure his point isn’t taken too far, all the way into devaluing what social media CAN do.

What say ye, EPIC Challengers?

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  • Martin Hoybye  On November 13, 2010 at 3:50 am

    I believe it’s true that there is a difference between weak and strong ties, but we have the opportunity to analyze ourselves as we connect within EPIC.
    I think, ideally, EPIC should be easy to weave in and out of as a person, because one should be “in” when motivated and having time to invest in the network, and be able step “out” when this is not so.
    For a human network to be strong, I think the “nodes” need to think that the network itself, or parts of it, has their back, to some extent. That’s when it’s not a purely academic exercise.
    But that maybe reading too much into it for some.

  • Göte Nyman  On November 13, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Hi Emily and all,

    Excellent challenges and food for thought,

    I believe the whole point is “What we talk about when we talk about social networks” (I have just read Murakami’s book on “What I talk about when I talk abut running”). People have no direct motivation to participate in what is called “a community” or “a social network” by the network enthusiasts and researchers. That is why the comment of the weak-links is really a valid criticism. But it is valid only in the cases, where the real motivations, interest, and experiences of meaning and will of the participating people have been neglected or overlooked. Of course, all connections without motivation result in weak links. It is easy to build platforms and networks, but it is v-e-r-y challenging to build inviting motivating and close-to-real-life platforms. But luckily people are not static in their behaviors and attitudes – they learn and are willing to learn.

    So, the most crucial thing in EPIC and other freely organizing communities is to be clear about how to partner with people’s motivations, their will to learn and contribute and their sense of meaning. In the case of EPIC we have excellent second generation ingredients for that, but it is really necessary to follow these aspects of our “network” at all times.

    It’s like the gangs in East Palo Alto, or the Bulldogs in Fresno, they do not recognize the term “gang” in the same way that social workers, police, media, and worried citizens do. They do not “participate” in a social network called “Bulldogs”, instead they live, are motivated by, and even make sacrifices for that life; they have specific motivations and a complex persona/social ecosystem of survival, comradeship, and survival. Saying that “someone is a member of a social network” really does not mean anything.

    Coming from the world of psychology, my perspectives reflect that, but I would also like to raise an extra factor that we should discuss, and it is also related to the “design of EPIC”. It is the dramatic form and content that we want to create. Sören might have something to say about that 🙂


  • Soren Ingomar  On November 14, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Hi Emily, – Thank you for making me think!

    First, I love Malcom’s books and have read three of them. That being said, when he concluded that fixing broken windows in NY reduced the city’s crime rate, when it was dropping in all cities, due to birth control, he taught me a lesson. The obvious conclusion isn’t always true. So, – Malcom have definitely helped me in my thesis work.

    His statements should be easy to refute, they all say: so and so is not possible . . . Find one example of it being possible and you have proven his claim wrong his. From what I have gathered from the book “Here Comes Everybody”, all his statements are wrong. Could they be right for EPIC? Well, that is a completely different question, however he proves it is up to us 😉

    Starting today and continuing till the holidays, I will be blogging weekly for peace on Stanford Alumni Inside Design site:


    Have a good weekend, – Soren

  • Val  On November 16, 2010 at 6:39 am


    Thanks for the very interesting post.

    I believe your questions under 2 (listed below) are key questions we need to answer to make our efforts successful.

    1. “Internally as an organization and externally as a widespread network of groups or pods collaborating, how might we avoid the strategic limitations of a “sprawling, leaderless” format?”

    2. “What part of our organization builds the network and what part steers the ship?”

    3. “Once we’ve built a sturdy network, how will it form into coherent working groups?”

    I congratulate those that created a very good website using Chaordix, and I expect that it will create a fire hose of comments and ideas. However, to be able to take effective actions on these ideas, we need tools to:

    1. Organize, massage, and present the ideas in a concise version.
    2. Provide tools for small working groups to be productive in their various missions
    a. Tools to communicate and create
    b. Persistent space for storing results (documents, etc.)
    c. Etc.
    3. Tools to conduct effective meetings with larger groups (e.g., the core team —including members who cannot physically attend the meetings at Stanford).
    4. And other tools to be determined

    I have been disappointed in my search for good tools, and we have not done enough to implement some of the tools we have found. Therefore, as soon as I learn how to make a hierarchy of subtopics, I would like to create a “Tools” subtopic under the “How can we improve the EPIC Global Challenge Site” topic in order to get ideas for these tools. We may be able to convince Chaordix to link some of the tools we find to their site to make it easy for people to use them. For example, Chaordix may be willing to add links to VSEE to make it easier for small teams to communicate, create, and document their work better.

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