Weak Ties Build Movements

Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent article for the New Yorker, “Small Change,” immediately triggered backlash from critics disagreeing to varying degrees with his case against social media. Gladwell is many things: a best-selling author, one of my favorite contributors to the New Yorker, and a big thinker uniquely capable of getting to the point quickly and concisely. Like all good writers and commentators, however, he cannot be right about everything. Small Change is one example.

The crux of his argument was that all of the hype about social media—though he seemed particularly vexed about Twitter and Facebook—and their contributions to social movements, is for naught. He used the civil rights movement of the 1960s as a standard against which more recent social movements that were supposedly aided or organized through Twitter could be judged. Gladwell said these media are useless for meaningful activism because they are “built around weak ties,” and that this is the key point “evangelists of social media” miss. Social media campaigns, he wrote, work because they do not ask too much of people, they increase participation “by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires… in other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivating them to do the things people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” To write them off as useless is akin to saying the telephone is useless because the American Revolution successfully launched and liberated the United States from England without it. Perhaps he was right that people so far have not been critical enough of these new media, and have taken every phenomenon tweeted as a sign of the amazing power they wield in creating social change, but his conclusion is myopic to a fault.

In “Small Change,” Gladwell asked his readers to believe that participants in social movements are either willing to make a huge sacrifice, or are just useless spectators, but social movements need spectators to become motivated into active participation. In other words, social movements, including the civil rights movement, do not just appear and instantly have millions of participants, movements need to recruit the spectators to join the activists. Surely Gladwell realized that.

Writing for the New York Times, William Powers, author of “Hamlet’s Blackberry”, asked whether the question is as “binary” as Gladwell made it. “Twitter and Facebook aren’t going to change the world,” he wrote, “but when used alongside other tools of human connectedness… the new technologies can be extremely useful.” When organizing a social movement, it is important to identify exactly how to deploy these technologies to maximize their utility. In rhetoric one of the classical ways of analyzing an artifact is to examine how the rhetor, or author, utilized all the available means of persuasion. As technologies change, and media evolve, so to do the means of persuasion. The great social movements of the future will be those that leverage all media—traditional and digital—and all means of persuasion effectively. Similarly, the social movements of yesterday should be examined through the lens of how all means of persuasion were utilized. The civil rights movement was successful, precisely due to the sum of its many coordinated parts.

Gladwell asked rhetorically, “Of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?” Since he put forth the question, it is worth imagining how the movement might have used them to turn spectators into activists. Had those churches blogged or podcasted their sermons, and the students who courageously sat down at that lunch counter used social media tools to communicate with a network, the movement may have grown more rapidly. Perhaps the sit-ins would have spread further, faster as the movement was able to communicate with more people, in more disparate locations, more quickly. People could have used Facebook to invite friends to join them at church, or read the newspaper, or turn on the radio or TV, just to get information and participate in a low-risk, weak tie way; the leaders of the movement could have easily used these networks to build their base of participants and then encourage further activism. But it is an impossible situation to imagine. If for example, Jim Crow laws had prohibited Blacks from accessing the Internet, it wouldn’t have mattered what existed since the tools were simply unavailable.

Gladwell unfairly compared the massively successful American civil rights movement, where new media were not even part of the equation, to isolated protests in places where (as Gladwell admits) “very few Twitter accounts exist,” and weak cases of minor social activism where social and new media were part of the equation. The reality Gladwell conveniently ignores is that a social movement in the US on the scale of civil rights has not really happened since these new media have existed. There is however, a growing social movement for civil rights happening, with the help of the Internet, in China.

Michael Anti, also for the Times, wrote that while social media will not organize a revolution, “faster access to information can be the crack in the system,” in a country like China where the state controls as much of the available means of persuasion as possible. “Through the Internet,” he argued, “we are starting to have a chance at getting the truth.” Chinese social media use was just one artifact of Gladwell’s unfortunate oversight of how people are using social media in creative ways to bring about social change.

For many years professional writers, hobbyists, and angst-filled teens alike have all had a platform to publish their thoughts, stories, and (bad) poetry to the world; it is called blogging. Since the late 1990s individuals could post to a growing number of blogging platforms like WordPress; they could join discussions with people all across the globe through forums powered by phpBB and collaborate on projects like Wikipedia. These platforms are still being developed, and are freely available on the Internet because they are “open source.” These projects are all basically defined by a legal license that liberates software from the constraints of a copyright, but also the community of programmers, computer scientists, and users who create and use the software. Any individual with a computer may contribute to the development and user experience of an open source project. The communities that maintain and curate open source projects are a special kind of social movement and a concrete example of one is the story of WordPress.

WordPress emerged from the remains of an abandoned blogging project called “b2/cafelog“. A blogger with almost no experience programming named Matt Mullenweg contributed a plugin and that was so useful it was eventually committed to the next version. A few years later, b2’s lead developer disappeared.

Several things could have happened at this point. If b2 were a copyright protected, proprietary project, it would have stagnated, bugs and all, until the copyright expired. The bloggers likely would have lost whatever work was trapped on their obsolete sites. But b2 was not proprietary, it was open source. When the time came to decide whether to keep it or kill it, Mullenweg picked it up and maintained the abandoned software. With the help of just one other developer, Mullenweg turned the artists, developers, and web enthusiasts on b2 into the earliest adopters of WordPress. Mullenweg’s code has since grown into one of the most popular content management systems on the market. It is used by behemoth organizations like the New York Times, and small time sites like this one.

WordPress has only a few lead developers, but beneath the surface lies an expansive network of millions of programmers, designers, and ordinary individuals participating, at varying levels, in the social movement centered around the platform.

That’s all fine and well, Gladwell might argue, but where is the systemic change, the sacrifice? These projects present real challenges to institutions like Microsoft, a company who’s market-share is being eroded on four fronts by open source projects. The dominant Internet browser in the early days of the World Wide Web was Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, in the early mobile market Windows Mobile and CE were powerful players, Windows still has a stronghold on the operating system market, and for years Microsoft has also led the desktop publishing field with Office. For a long time, Microsoft had little real threats in these areas. Today each has serious competition with a distinct price advantage: free. In browsers, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome are rising to the occasion; in mobile, it’s Google’s Android platform; Ubuntu makes a fine alternative to Windows; and the OpenOffice Suite gives free access to the same services Microsoft Office offers for hundreds of dollars. They all come with free support, and upgrades for life. If Microsoft’s mid-bogglingly large software empire being dismantled by a social movement is not enough of an institutional takedown for Gladwell, it is not clear what is.

All of these projects are held together by weak ties, but are not organized around them. Each project has a team of developers who maintain and distribute the complete project. They make decisions about which features to include for the next version, what features to deprecate, and manage the release schedule. Some, especially those organized by Google, are more structured than others, but despite the centralized organization, each open source project is only as strong as the unique contributions made by individuals who participate, however passively, throughout the development process. This network of developers is held together by individuals experimenting with the software, writing plugins, designing user interfaces, contributing to support wikis, answering questions on Twitter and email lists, and yes, even through old-fashioned face-to-face interaction.

The WordPress team tours the world each year hosting a series of workshops called WordCamps for casual bloggers and advanced power-users alike. WordCamps strengthen the weak ties that hold the community together and encourage people to become more involved, active, and dedicated to the WordPress movement. The sacrifice for getting involved is that anything contributed to WordPress is—or should be—free. If someone is a new programmer, that person is giving up hours of their lives to learn new programming languages, test code, and make whatever contribution they can, all to give it away for free. Maybe this isn’t enough of a sacrifice for Gladwell. Perhaps for him, a social movement isn’t real unless it is dangerous to participate in; unless you risk death or imprisonment, but contributing to an open source project is a sacrifice nonetheless.

Gladwell ends Small Change by pretentiously dismissing NYU Professor Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” by retelling one of its stories about a Wall Streeter losing his cell phone, and recovering it using an amalgam of online resources. “A networked weak-tie world,” Gladwell concludes,” is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls,” and nothing else. This is clearly not the case, and a surprisingly narrow conclusion to draw about new communication tools that help give the Chinese freedom of speech, chip away at multibillion dollar companies, and give ordinary citizens access to ideas and voices from across the globe.

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About Greg Boone

Greg is a second year graduate student from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul Minnesota. While traveling around Europe and Asia he began to see how new media made it harder to leave home behind when moving to a new place, but also their potential to create positive social change. He explores this topic and other questions related to the influence of technology on culture at Georgetown's Communication Culture and Technology program. Greg also likes to bike around the Washington, DC area and brews his own beer. Normally these remain separate activities.