weak network ties and movement mobilization
Malcolm Gladwell has decided to delve into the waters of social movement theory. In this essay he does a nice job discussing the implications of research on social movement mobilization and networks for the current wave of political activism that some attribute to online social media. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media could revolutionize the ability of activists to organize, some think. They argue that the recent activism in Iran exemplifies the new form of mobilization, as agitators take to the internet to mobilize support for their causes and to coordinate protests in the street. Gladwell is skeptical. Citing research by the likes of Doug McAdam, Aldon Morris, and Mark Granovetter, Gladwell argues that mobilization tends to occur through strong network ties, not through the weak ties of social networking websites. Weak ties are better at transmitting information than they are at getting people to sacrifice and commit to movement causes. The riskier the action or the more commitment required, the more critical strong ties will be to mobilizing activists.
You can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor registry [through social media], because doing so is pretty easy. You have to send in a cheek swab and—in the highly unlikely event that your bone marrow is a good match for someone in need—spend a few hours at the hospital. Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.
Twitter didn’t create Iran’s Green Revolution. Face-to-face networks were likely the glue that kept the protestors together, especially as the potential costs of protesting increased. However, Twitter mattered in one really important way – it allowed Iranians to communicate messages about their movement to a global audience. This matters because movements create leverage by appealing to third-parties to support their cause and withhold resources from their targets. Like I argued in an earlier blog post about this topic:
Tweeting gives outsiders direct access to the voice of the protestors. Coupled with public protest and an inflammatory situation, tweeting is an audience-creating machine.
Twitter is a broker of many weak ties. It connects a variety of clusters in the global social network, making it possible to communicate rapidly and efficiently to a large number of people. This is why Twitter, and the weak ties it brings with it, is such a valuable asset to social movements. With that one caveat, I think Gladwell seems spot on in his essay.
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