Monday 11 October 2010

Weak ties and social media: Malcolm Gladwell is partly right

Philosophical discussions surrounding the reach and power of social media are all too often tedious and predictable, but the news that Malcolm Gladwell has written a piece in the New York Times which fiercely doubts the extent to which social media can effect large-scale social change, got me interested.

Basically Gladwell's point is that mass behaviour such as the civil rights movements in the 1960s, took place perfectly naturally without the need for social media. Furthermore, he points out, social media encourages a culture of "me too" in so far as clicking "Like" or "RT" is concerned, but our activism tends to be confined to words rather than deeds these days. In short, social media encourages lazy activism.

Social media evangelists, some of whom often cite Gladwell as their hero (hi Xavi), are up in arms, and apparently feel a bit betrayed. There have been numerous discussions on all sorts of blogs in the last few days since the article as published -  including an interesting riposte here. I'm in two minds, but tend to agree broadly with much of what Gladwell says where social change is concerned.

An example is Justgiving. A few years ago, if someone was climbing Kilimanjaro or running the marathon for charity, they'd call up their friends and relatives, go into their local newsagent, do a whip-around at work. These days, it's merely a quick page on Justgiving and that's it. Most requests for donations completely pass me by because they're two-a-penny, impersonal requests; if someone called me up and asked me to sponsor them, I'd do it! Then there are the "awareness" campaigns. While I'd agree with Leo Mirani that awareness campaigns are vitally important in many cases, and that social media has indeed revolutionised the way that causes and issues can explosively reach a mass audience, at the same time there are plenty of examples of limp, "passive activism" through social media.

An example was World Aids Day earlier this year, when any tweet with the hashtag #red changed colour. It took off in a big way - huge numbers used the hashtag. But there was rarely any context; I didn't actually realise the significance of the hashtag until the day was nearly finished, having seen dozens of tweets referring to it. Having fun with colour-changing tweets is all very well, and I'm sure the HIV-positive millions in south Africa would be touched, but commitment levels were clearly minimal.

Another social media example, this time on Facebook, was the viral spreading of Facebook status updates by women, who posted a colour (it turned out to be their bra colour) - apparently men weren't supposed to know what it meant. To that extent it worked: my at-the-time-all-male office were puzzled for days. (It transpired that it was something to do with breast cancer).

Just this week, a new breast cancer "update your Facebook status" campaign has appeared. If any of your female friends have posted something saucy ("I like it up on the kitchen table) in the last 48 hours, that'll be it. Harmless fun, but what good does it to cancer sufferers? I nearly fell into a fatal trap: I posted a cynical update to my own Facebook status, and was shutting down the machine...when the realisation of my own hypocrisy hit me.

The examples posed by Gladwell were concerned with activism, but to what extent does social media, more generally, have the power to change behaviour? Can social media affect our decision making processes, which in turn might affect commercial or other enterprises? The debate, I think, is far more wide-reaching than merely political campaigns. To what extent can the connections people forge via social media channels change their behaviour, compared to connections made by more "traditional" means? What are the political, social and commercial implications?

The crucial sentence in Gladwell's article simply states that "The platforms of social media are built on weak ties". Yes - but aren't those the ties with the most potential? Close family-and-friends bonds are immensely powerful, restrict yourself to your usual social circle and it's all too easy to find yourself associating with people from similar cultural and economic backgrounds, with similar outlooks on life. By throwing caution to the wind (the relative anonymity of social media can help throw off the shackles - a bit like alcohol for losing inhibitions!) and getting involved with a range of conversations, minds have the potential to be changed. I'll never have a bad word said against my closest friends, I love them all, mates for life and all the rest of it, but our conversations tend to be limited to rugby, women, poker, alcohol, and how much the rest of them are earning. My loose connections in social media allow me to have active discussions on all kinds of offbeat topics.

The internet has facilitated this since its early days. Whether it's an interest in obscure music or bizarre sexual practices, the internet has allowed people to come together and spread ideas; the fact that Facebook and Twitter have come along and made the process a bit more personal and one-to-one haven't "revolutionised" this, rather they are an organic extension of internet culture as it was in the early 2000s. And what of the ultimate in extreme views, the cult? It's far easier to join a cult now than it was in the 60s, and many people are doing more than just spreading words and ideas, but going ahead with actual deeds.

Just a little aside about weak social bonds. They can be misleading. I was at my ten-year school reunion over the weekend; catching up with people who have little in common except that we spent six years in the same building. The general impression beforehand was that the evening would be a cringeworthy affair where we put on plastic smiles, exchanged the usual pleasantries, tossed up a few memories, and left. That couldn't be further from the truth. Many of us came away open-mouthed about how much those long-distant memories meant to us all. Old school friends are classic examples of those sorts of casual Facebook relationships - but a reunion demonstrates just how those apparently flaky, throwaway "friendships" can be astonishingly powerful.

One of the great things about social media is that it's possible to converse on an equal footing with world experts in a particular area. People at the top of their game within a profession or interest area mingle with dabblers on a hashtag or discussion forum. It's something which Andrew Keen rallies against in his book Cult of the amateur (I haven't read it); apparently the thrust of his argument is that there's an obsession with sharing knowledge, even from people who are clueless, so we see a false sense of gravitas created by an individual based on participation levels, social skills, or other interactive means. This week Andrew Marr launched a tirade against bloggers for similar reasons. It's true that it's possible to exude a false sense of gravitas on forums and social networks based on participation levels or social skills. It's also true that many heads are not always better than one. But at the same time, crowdsourcing and wikis provide collaborative efforts unheard of before. (One of the most interesting articles on Wikipedia is actually about the reliability of Wikipedia). There's no longer a top-down approach to knowledge - a point also made by Ben Goldacre in his excellent Bad Science. Yet he "top" of "top-down" might not be experts but rather a media, government and commercial elite who form opinions almost by brute force. As Goldacre points out, when the small media elite get things wrong, there can be disastrous consequences, as with the MMR "scandal".

Lively discussions now occur in frameworks as diverse as Amazon reviews, Wikipedia talk pages, and comments sections on mainstream media publisher articles, notable on the Guardian and Daily Mail websites (not to mention Guido Fawkes's blog comments, although tread there with caution). Of all social media, I find forums the most fascinating. Unlike most social networks, forum users tend not to know each other when they join up initially, but bonds and cliques naturally form over time, while all sorts of interesting social undercurrents start to manifest themselves. Inspired by Tom Ewing's excellent Confessions of a Moderator, at some point I will write a little piece comparing forum dynamics of the ones I've known. For a rainy day, though.

In my own personal experience, social networking has allowed me to participate in discussions (often arguments) with people I've never met, sometimes halfway around the world. The flow of inbound information and content is far more varied (and just more abundant); no longer are we restricted to what we read in the Metro in the morning, and watch on the ten o'clock news. With minimal effort we can subject ourselves to some rather extreme views from all sides, evaluate them, spread our own ideas around.

Postscript: the bank called me the following morning, alarmed at an unusual payment on my card the previous night to Cancer Research that "didn't fit in with my normal spending habits". That's me told!

***Update*** I've just become aware of this piece in Wired which references a paper from 1973 about weak ties. I haven't actually read the Granovetter paper yet, but I'm hoping it'll be an academic viewpoint similar to my own amateurish daydreams!


  1. Hi there,

    thanks for the mention. it would be rude not to comment, first as a Social Psychologist obsessed as of late with the concept of social influence, second as a Malcom Gladwell admirer, third as social media professional and fourth as your mate that knows how sad you get about not getting comments in such amazing posts.

    You are right. While social media has increased the ability and amplification of responses to social issues, it has also curbed them to sheer and quite meaningless RT's or status lacking context and actual action.

    on the other hand, these possibilities cannot be dismissed, and the ability of social media to interconnect weak ties around interest graphs has to be seen as a higly desirable benefit we didn't use to enjoy.

    The problem is the loss of focus from campaigners and an obsession with ROI. If you were a consultant working for Cancer Research, you would work on a viral status updates because that is something that gives you something to show for your invoice. We all are losing focus that ultimately, influence is changing thougths and behaviours, and that a reblog or retweet is just a minimal stepping stone.

    but, hey this is old stuff in digital. Good practiocioners work on conversions, not visits to a website. Good practicioners set good objectives ( donations vs RT's, demonstration attendance attributable to social media vs. RSVP on Facebook ).

    malcom is probably being just romantic, what happens here is that communicators behind these campaigns are setting the wrong objectives and measuring the wrong metrics.

    You owe my company 20 minutes of productivity. Thanks

  2. This has got to be the first time we've agreed on anything. Actually I agree with everything you say, especially the ROI/objectives points.