September 30, 2010

Can True Activism Be Fostered Through Social-Networking Sites?

Dear Malcolm Gladwell: The nonprofit technology world is not very happy with you.

Mr. Gladwell's article in this week's New Yorker magazine, criticizing the hype about social media's ability to stir social movements, is drawing fire from nonprofit technology experts, among others.

The primary gripe against Mr. Gladwell, left, an author of several best-selling books, centers on his argument that Facebook, Twitter, and other online tools foster "weak" ties among people, which he says are not the types of relationships upon which social activism depends. For example, he writes, the lunch-counter sit-ins that helped foster the civil-rights movement of the 1960s were built on "strong" ties, true friendships, which are necessary if one is to engage in high-risk activism of the sort required of civil-rights leaders.

Allison Fine, a social-media expert and Chronicle contributor, disagrees that the Web is undercutting these "strong" ties and promoting only weak ones. Successful activism has a "combination of initially tight ties—someone has to drive the train—and loose ties—others have to join the movement," she says. Furthermore, she writes, all successful movements today happen both online and "on land."

R.A., a blogger for The Economist, says that Mr. Gladwell gets it wrong by suggesting that the Web simply increases the number of weak ties between people. Social-networking sites do make it easier to form loose connections with people one barely knows, but they also make it easier to stay in touch with people one knows deeply, thereby also making "strong" ties stronger.

Beth Kanter, co-author with Ms. Fine of the book, The Networked Nonprofit, offers further analysis, as does Jillian C. York, of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and a number of scholars who discuss the issue on The New York Times Web site.

What's your reaction to Mr. Gladwell's piece?