Malcolm Gladwell just doesn’t understand Facebook. I read his article in the New Yorker about social media activism and my first thought was “what Facebook is he using?”
Facebook is, first and foremost, about strong ties.
In the article, Mr. Gladwell states that “Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.” The average Facebook user has 130 friends, not thousands, and these people are not just acquaintances. The site’s popularity is driven by its ability to connect you to people you care about the most. In fact, Facebook’s secret algorithm that chooses what displays in your News Feed is rooted in figuring out who your best friends are. The reason the fastest growing demographic on the site is women over 40 years old is because they are looking at photos of their kids and their grandkids, staying in touch with their strong ties. For example, when I joined a cause I care about (improving public education) yesterday, the first three people I recruited were my brother-in-law, my sister, and my mom. Even as Facebook pushes 550 million monthly active users it continues to be a place to connect with your closest friends and family.
There is a ladder of engagement to becoming a hard-core activist.
Social media may dramatically lower the barrier of entry to calling yourself an ‘activist,’ but this is pure added value for society. Activism is not a zero-sum game where taking an action online makes you less likely or able to take other actions. In fact, the National Conference on Citizenship finds that people who take small actions online are actually more likely to take higher-impact actions later. Even if you consider high-risk activism the end goal, most people begin their activist involvement with low-risk conversations and actions.
High-risk activism needs low-risk activism.
The distinction that Mr. Gladwell draws between high-risk activism and low-risk activism is half-baked. Certainly, high-risk activism has created social change. But “low-risk” supporters have been an important part of every social change movement as well. In fact, one could argue that social change movements have required low-risk activism to reach a “tipping point”. Taking Gladwell’s example of the civil rights movement, we can look to the thousands of people who wrote checks to the SCLC because they wanted to help, but did not want to go on the Freedom Rides.
To offer an example from the Causes platform, a cause created around the documentary film called “The Cove” has reached nearly 900,000 members. The high-risk action takers in this case are Ric O’Barry and a handful of colleagues who travel to Japan, confront dolphin hunters, and make headlines by marching in front of embassies and disrupting meetings of the Internationl Whaling Commission. But Ric relies on the community of 900,000 supporters to take the low-risk actions that show they’re behind him – they signed a petition that Ric delivered to the Japanese government, they donated $10 or $20 which has added up to the $110,000 raised on Causes to send him on his next trip to Japan, and they will make up the supporters who will attend an off-line rally in Washington DC this spring.
Weak ties can also build social movements. As Jonah Lehrer posted in his response to the article in Wired, weak ties “play a seminal role in building trust among a large group of loosely affiliated members, which is essential for rallying behind a cause.” He cites a 1973 paper by Mark Granovetter which analyzes the power of weak ties in creating change, including a successful movement to fight off a massive urban renewal project. Facebook combines the ability to tap your closest friends to take action with you (thanks for joining the cause Mom) but I can also broadcast out to my 1600 Facebook friends which only adds additional potential supporters. The ability to take action in a place where both your strong and weak ties exist together makes Facebook an extremely powerful platform from which to take action.
Social media makes activism more accessible, cheaper, faster, and easier. And that’s a great thing.
Movements for social change require a lot of community involvement and, right now, community is being built on Facebook. It might not look like a church basement but it’s quicker to get there, easier to park, and you’ll get a lot of people showing up who never would have found the church basement. That doesn’t mean that organizing shouldn’t be done in person as well, but if you can get 50 people in the church, there are another 500 people you could get to take a lower barrier-to-entry action like joining a cause. If Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t have needed social media because “ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church” then maybe it wouldn’t be the best tool for him. But, unfortunately, the reality today is that ninety-eight per cent of the people needed to solve our most pressing social problems are not all sitting in the same room. They’re stretched across the world, they come from different cultures and generations, and they certainly can’t all gather in the same building this Sunday. But they are on Facebook and more than 250 million of them are signing in every single day.
And with the problems we face today, we’re gonna need all the help we can get.