Home > Books, Facebook, Personal Network, Twitter > “I’m right behind you” – but how far can that be when you are online?

“I’m right behind you” – but how far can that be when you are online?

I spotted an article in the Observer today about Malcolm Gladwell’s views on Twitter.

If you’ve read my blog before, you will know I’m a big fan of Malcolm – especially his book “The Tipping Point”. His views on Twitter in the context of campaigning and protest have

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further convinced me he is one of the most insightful writers on the subject of Personal Networks. He “gets” the difference between the Facebook “friends” phenomena and real-life commitment of a Personal Network – and explains it clearly with excellent examples.

The Observer is following up an article Malcolm wrote this week in the New Yorker (“Small Change – why the revolution will not be tweated”). Please do click through the link and read – you’ll get a great article outlining the difference between “real” protest and Facebook/Twitter “noise”.

The story centres around the Greensboro Woolworths Lunch Counter protest in 1960. This is seen by many as the launch for the civil rights movement in the US. Malcolm’s writing clearly illustrates the bravery – and commitment – these protestors showed to fight for their cause. He argues that that commitment to “real” causes is made through “strong ties” – and this is a fine example. This is very different from the ability to have networks of “weak ties” – which is currently the domain of Facebook and Twitter. Malcolm says:-

“So one crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remembered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. 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.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism”.

It’s a very valid point – although the Observer article focusses on the backlash and “outrage” against Malcolm’s view from Twitterers.

As mentioned in my last blog, it’s hard not to be cynical about “friends” on Facebook when my 12 year old son has 310 of them (no disrespect to his obvious “likeability”!). Twitter for campaigning and protest is the modern equivalent of that famous quote “I’m right behind you!”. Trouble is that on-line your supporters can be a very, very long way behind you!

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