Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

Online + IRL -> Real Action

This post also appears on Edelman.ca

Finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s controversial New Yorker article excoriating technophiles and technoutopians for overrating social media’s ability to effect social change. For those who don’t want to read the whole article, here’s the Coles/Cliffs Notes version.

Gladwell believes that social media activism is overrated. The #iranelections twitter campaign was largely a phenomenon in the West with little traction on the ground in Iran. Same with the so-called twitter revolution in Moldova. Yes, there is strength of weak ties (indeed the Tipping Point depends on it), but BIG CHANGE in the face of GRAVE DANGER requires strong ties and hierarchies. The master storyteller illustrates his point by recounting the story of a civil rights sit-in in Greensboro, NC, the sit-in was started by four friends who planned it for months and endured a barrage of sneers, taunts, and threats of violence. But because they were friends, because they had strong-tie connections, because they knew that their co-conspirators had each others back, they persevered. Weak-tie networks work differently. They mobilize a large number of people quickly to participate in a low-risk activity. The weak-tie collective can yield results whether it’s raising money for a cause (Save Darfur), saving an individual’s life (social media found a bone marrow transplant match for Sameer Bhatia) or ensuring justice is served (through a social media a stolen LG sidekick was returned to its rightful owner) but in Malcolm’s mind, these are hardly status quo game changers.

Only they are. Not in the sense that the world was changed (both the Bhatia and the LG sidekick stories benefit single individuals); but in the speed and relative ease in which movements get organized.

How do movements get started? Derek Sivers points the way in his 3 minute TED talk. “First, of course you know, a leader [of the movement] needs the guts to stand out and be ridiculed. But what he’s doing is so easy to follow. So here’s his first follower with a crucial role. He’s going to show everyone else how to follow.” the first follower is crucial because he “transforms a lone nut into a leader.” Then two, three, four, people follow, momentum build, the rate of new followers accelerates and a movement starts. And why do more people join? “…as more people join in, it’s less risky. So those that were sitting on the fence before, now have no reason not to. They won’t stand out. They won’t be ridiculed.” The Greensboro civil rights sit-in was started by 4 boys, then grew to 27 the next day, day after that 80 and day after that 300. The “grave danger” Gladwell felt was so critical for real movements to happen were only experienced by the original four. The risk was significantly lowered for the 296 others.

So now that we know how movements are formed, how does social media facilitate them? By making it easy for first followers to find their “lone nuts”. It’s propelled Twestival from a small gathering in London to a 200 city party and it’s what turned Movember from a single challenge made between a bunch of friends in an Adelaide, Australia pub to a worldwide phenomenon. Let me be clear, the organizing, the action, the “doing part” of the movement happens in real life. Social media helps you find collaborators needed to turn a little idea into a movement for social change.