This week's New Yorker includes an essay by Malcolm Gladwell expressing skepticism toward large claims currently being made for the revolutionary potential of online social media like Facebook and Twitter. There was supposed to have been a "Twitter Revolution," for instance, in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, while Twitter allegedly served as an essential organizing tool for protests against the supposedly stolen election in Iran last year. But Gladwell observes that the social media did less to organize dissidents in those countries than to keep them in contact with western sympathizers. He believes that social media's potential in such risky circumstances is limited because those media do little to cultivate the strong ties among "critical friends" upon which effective resistance movements, e.g. the southern sit-ins of the 1960s and the Eastern European protests of 1989, depend.
Gladwell distinguishes between strong ties and weak ties, noting that social media specialize in the latter. The proliferation of weak ties made possible by social media are useful for disseminating information and collaborative creativity, but "seldom lead to high-risk activism." What makes the ties weak is an apparent inherent limit on what you can expect or demand from your Facebook friends in a pinch. They make it easier for people to participate in a wider range of low-risk activities, but Gladwell doubts that they do much to increase anyone's motivation to take principled risks. "Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice," he writes. Social media, then, give us an option to do less when the options used to be all or nothing.
Social media will make poor platforms for high-risk activism, Gladwell claims, because they aren't conducive to the hierarchical organization he deems necessary for effective action. Instead of organizational hierarchies capable of setting goals and priorities, social media specialize in creating decentralized networks. These networks "can't think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error," Gladwell presumes, asking: "How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?"
Gladwell's message -- "[I]f you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy," has obvious implications outside the realm of social media. In our usual context, it throws into question the usefulness of social media for people attempting to build alternatives to the American Bipolarchy. That's not as risky an agenda as defying the Iranian government, but were it as low-risk a proposition as it seems it should be it should have been done already. Can social media help? Howard Dean's campaign in 2004 proved that the Internet could spark real enthusiasm for a candidate, while Ron Paul's campaign in 2008 proved that the Internet can be a formidable fundraising tool. When it came to counting votes, neither candidate lived up to his online hype. In Dean's case, online enthusiasm proved no substitute for oldschool door-to-door politicking in Iowa, while Paul's fundraising base was broad but insufficiently concentrated anywhere geographically to win primaries. Since the appeal of social media is based in large part on the opportunities it creates for making distant friends, there'll always be a national or presidential temptation tied to online third-partyism. Social media also cultivate networks based on pre-existing affinities, while elections must be won by persuading a broader base of people who don't necessarily agree with you in the beginning. To win an election anywhere you have to have a local concentration of forces and resources. Does social media enhance anyone's ability to collect and control these forces? The evidence is insufficient, but the counter-example of the Tea Party movements shows that old-fashioned mass demonstrations still make a grater impression than any virtual demonstration can. For a while to come, people will probably remain more impressed by an appeal from a live person than from an e-mail or tweet. The majority of Americans may yet remain outside all online social networks, as may the majority of people in any given electoral district. Anyone who thinks that social media alone will spark any sort of insurrection is living in science fiction.