Will the Revolution be Tweeted?

In last week’s New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell of “The Tipping Point,” “Blink” and “Outliers” fame offered a fairly dubious view on the power of social media to spur activism (http://tiny.cc/pwx1v). His contention is that the bonds formed through social media are too weak to compel people to take actions that will really affect change.While I think he misses the mark at times and adopts an overall perspective that is too extreme, Gladwell does raise some important points that are relevant to public affairs:

  • There is a difference between high-risk activism – that is the activism that requires an unpopular stance or may put the participant in harm’s way – and low-risk activism. Social media is much more effective in compelling the latter, which is normally the type of action we manage in the public affairs space. However, if you’re involved in a more controversial issue, it will take more of a hands-on grassroots and relationship-building effort to mobilize supporters. Social media can then be used to maintain those relationships.
  • Social media can help you build a network, not a hierarchy. While your online network can demonstrate support for an issue, it clearly cannot set goals or think strategically about how to drive a campaign. You need leadership and planning to marshal that power and execute successfully.
  • Often, social media networks are built with people with whom you have never met. Gladwell refers to these connections as “weak ties,” as opposed to the “strong ties” you have with people close to you. We always encourage developing strong personal relationships with those most influential on an issue because for all of the benefits of social media, there is no substitute for a human connection.

At the end of the day, Gladwell is really talking about compelling a very high level of activism (e.g., sitting at a segregated lunch counter), which is difficult to engage people in with or without social media. If you want people to sign a petition, write their Congressman or even vote, social media provides highly effective mechanisms for outreach and activation.

More broadly, though, the important thing to remember is that while social media channels are powerful tools, they are just that – tools. It is the ideas that are conveyed through those channels that give them their strength. To be successful, you must have a clear, persuasive message and a strong strategy for engagement. Without those pieces, it doesn’t matter if you tweet, meet with a person or send a carrier pigeon: you can’t activate people until you resonate with them.