Social Media Change: is it effective?
Can you use social media to recruit volunteers? Can you use facebook to relieve hunger? Will the next social revolution be twittered? Probably, we don't know yet. The Volunteer Center has hundreds of facebook fans, twitter followers, and youtube videos with more than 1,000 hits. We've jumped into the social media fray head first, and volunteer managers are always asking us what we think about whether or not they should have a facebook page. So when last week's New Yorker came out with an indictment of the ways we use social media for activism and social change, we were interested in the discussion.
Here's Emma Margraf and Adam Fletcher discussing this very timely topic:
Emma: The first time I got sent Malcolm Gladwell’s article about social media it came with this subject line: “Gladwell is uninformed”. The article was embedded within a letter refuting Gladwell’s claims. Wow, I thought to myself, Malcolm Gladwell on social media -- this could be fun. The third, fourth, or possibly fifth time it was sent to me, Adam was copied on the email, and it was also within a letter refuting Gladwell’s claims about social media. Frustrated status updates popped up on my facebook (LOL), people rolled their internet eyes at him all week saying: “dude, you’re old school”.
Given that every week non-profit volunteer managers tell me they are required to have professional social media programs, I thought maybe we should jump into this topic. And so, Adam and I continue our conversation, this time focused on Gladwell’s article.
Emma: What do you think, Adam, are people actually reading Gladwell’s article?
Adam: Emma, do people actually know how to read? We have both worked in nonprofits enough to know that after a while everybody looses the ability to sit down and read anything in depth! A 6-page New Yorker article by world-renowned academician Malcolm Gladwell? Fugget about it. Most responses to Gladwell I’ve read from within the nonprofit sector read like folks are responding to a summary of Gladwell’s piece, or even responses to others’ one-paragraph responses to Gladwell- but not a lot of substantive, original critique. So, in a word, No, Emma, I do not think people are actually reading Gladwell’s article. Can you sum it up for our readers?
Emma: As I understand it, here is the gist: social media will not, by itself, make change. He goes into some depth about the misconception that the civil rights movement operated out of a “fever”; as if change happened out of a kind of contagious fervor. In fact, the civil rights movement was regimented and strategic if you looked behind the scenes. It was a movement based on relationship building, trust, and faith. It was a multi-faceted web. What social media can offer social movements is efficiency.
“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.”
When I read this quote I couldn’t agree more. But the quotes from the article that other people cited on my facebook were more like this:
“social networks are weak, disorganized clusters that lack power because they offer low-risk participation and have no hierarchy to set goals and direction..."...[social media] makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have an impact."
And what follows in each person’s argument has struck me as a little bit of protesting too much. Non-profit techies across the country are saying that Gladwell doesn’t understand that the Internet is only a tool. I’d argue that this is exactly what he understands.
Adam: I’d suggest that he’s comparing apples to oranges. In 1960, the year of the Greensboro sit-ins that Gladwell explores in the article, the population of the U.S. was about 181,000,000 people. Today, it is 308,000,000 people. Simply put, we cannot rely on phone calls and in-person meetings to rally people to the cause anymore, and in a simplistic way, it seems like that is all Gladwell thinks social media is for.
In a more complex way, from my perspective the ground that progressive activism sits on has shifted much more than Gladwell acknowledges. In 2010, American society is much more preoccupied with sensationalism and consumerism than it was in 1960. Only recently have the masses begun to question the middle-class mythology that anti-progressive forces rely on to promote cynicism and placated perspectives. In 1960, poverty was still so rampant and racial segregation so overt that many people simply could not sit idly by any longer. Today, unfortunately, there are lots of reasons to sit idly, whether because of football on the big screen or credit card debt hanging over our heads. Each of these influences, along with many more, encourage and placate the broad majority, and ask us not to react. Those forces, and many more, weren’t quite as strong in 1960, Emma, and honestly, I don’t think Gladwell is giving them due credence. These are different times.
Because of the population difference, and the demographic differences, of the U.S. and the world today, we need new technologies that can help harness the capacity of individuals to affect the whole. That’s the power and possibility of social media: it can be a great tool for acknowledging and bridging diversity.
Emma: I can’t imagine that he would disagree with that. Social media is a great tool. Absolutely. And because I don’t know the difference between the different kind of screwdrivers, I don’t pick one up until I’ve double checked that I’m using it for what it will work for.
Every day I talk to non-profit staffers about social media, and every day I say the same thing: decide what you want to get out of it before you start and don’t expect miracles. I don’t think Facebook is the first thing that has inspired people to set up an invite to an event and then do nothing more to encourage people to go. When the event day arrives, they are surprised when no one is there.
Every tool must be used appropriately, and the rules of friend-raising can never be ignored; have a purpose, develop a relationship, build a bridge, follow up, then follow up again. If you can use facebook to do those things, then more power to you.
Adam: Right, but again, its an apple and oranges argument. Gladwell admonishes people for “Facebook activism,” seemingly suggesting that organizations who collect members on their Facebook pages are somehow doing a critical disservice to activism in general. But they aren’t. I’d suggest that many times these organizations are providing gateway self-identification processes via social media by encouraging folks to say, “Hey, I see this issue is important, and I want to support it somehow.” There is an elitist perspective out there that says that if you’re not shedding blood on the pavement you’re not a real activist. Gladwell apparently supports that. But that does not bring in more supporters for when those movements actually will hit the ground; instead, it relies on last-minute goodwill and educational skills. Unfortunately, in volunteers’ hyper-driven, low-attention span world there are simply too many efforts demanding their attention. The solution? Show them that 20,000 of their friends care about it around the world, and right here in Olympia, 23 of their friends do. Getting these folks connected, however that happens, is a good thing no matter what. Social media is a prime avenue for those connections. Gladwell faults these connections, suggesting they aren’t the “blood on the pavement” activism he wants to see. Well, I’ve got news for you, professor: Most people don’t want to shed blood for their cause. The sung and unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement were heroes precisely because they nonviolently fought (and really died) for their cause. Behind them, though, supporting them and rallying for them were everyday actors: students giving speeches in debate classes supporting Civil Rights; voters checking “yes” on desegregation initiatives; news reporters picking up the stories that were unpopular before the Movement really took hold. Social media gives everyday folks the chance to support activism, even if they’re not taking it. It’s too bad if that doesn’t support Gladwell’s perspective, if only because it is successful at what it does: rally popular support for on-the-ground, “real” action.
Emma: I’m sorry, I got a little bit of the giggles from your sounding surprised that the New Yorker would employ an elitist. I absolutely agree that Gladwell is an elitist, but that doesn’t mean his point shouldn’t be taken. Because it is absolutely true that people are willing to do much more for that with which they have a personal connection of some sort.
So, say, you put up an article on your facebook page that explains what happens at puppy mills, your goal may just be to put it up in the hopes that someone reads it. But that’s not activism, right? Activism is when you post the article and then make sure to have 10 conversations where you ensure that people read it and took action.
Adam: Eight years ago, I sat in a capacity crowd at The Evergreen State College when Michael Moore came through on a speaking tour promoting his film “Bowling for Columbine.” As usual, he was bent on rampaging against corporate influence, and the hyper-sympathetic audience, including me, was lapping it up. That was, until the Q&A time, when a young man, presumably a student, stood up to talk. Wagging his long, dark dreadlocks behind his ear and relaxing into a comfortable slouch in patchwork overalls, he said something to Moore that continually comes to my mind whenever I think about activism elitists. To paraphrase, this questioner challenged Moore by suggesting Moore himself was beholden to corporate interests, and suggested he give all his profits away to charitable causes. As I recall it, Moore dismissed the questioner with a snide (and deft) reply, suggesting the guy keep worrying about his own trust fund and leave Moore to do what he thought was right with his own money. He also suggested the audience read his book Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, which also came out that year. In it he explains where his money goes.
I bring this up because if I was speaking about social media and Gladwell got up to dismiss the efficacy of social media, I would be tempted to reply by suggesting Gladwell get on Facebook and ask his 1,099 friends there how they’d respond to his dismissal. Then I’d be tempted to ask how he personally uses social media, because I’m sure that just like the rest of us he’s posting the video for the latest cause and promoting the new survey to support the greatest organization ever.
Emma: He’s not though. His Facebook page has virtually nothing on it except friend request acceptances and one posting for something he wrote.
It’s interesting to me how quickly he’s being stamped down for just saying that the revolution needs to be based on deep relationship building and connection. Who can argue with that? Not I. Also, Gladwell’s job is not to start the revolution himself, it’s to poke us all and say, hey, don’t forget to think about something in a new way. Think about this. Think about that. And hey, I think it worked.
Adam: It did, and goodness knows I’m the last person to attack critical thinking, even if it is off-base. I think nonprofits and activists need to do more to deliberately foster critical perspectives within our movements and throughout our sector. So I readily welcome Gladwell and other critical thinkers to our field, and encourage others to, too.
Emma: Let’s all have the conversation! People should talk about what they hope to get out of social media tactics, then use those tactics to reach out, but use other methods as well. Pick up the phone, meet people in person, and most importantly, always have the conversation. Then follow up. Social movements, revolutions, human services whatever it is that you do -- take every kind of organizing tactic you have at your disposable and use them wisely and often. Don’t get mad at Gladwell, evaluate your tactics and make sure they’re working. That’s my advice.
Malcolm Gladwell. “Small Change: The revolution will not be tweeted.” New Yorker. October 4, 2010. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=3#ixzz11cMKnr2T
Poverty Matters Blog response http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2010/oct/06/digital-activism-facebook-twitter-gladwell