Until yesterday, Malcolm Gladwell was a hero to many social media utopians. Books such as The Tipping Point and Outliers seemed to reinforce a worldview in which online social networks represent a brighter future, a pure meritocracy in which worthwhile ideas will flourish, unencumbered, allowing humanity to progress according to Enlightenment ideals.
His most recently published thoughts might have changed all that. Channelling Gil Scott-Heron for the New Yorker, Gladwell argued that, in fact, “the revolution will not be tweeted“. Marking the “strong ties” between individuals involved in genuine, world-historical activism – from Greensboro to the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall – Gladwell noted that online networks are, on the contrary, characterised by “weak ties”. The purported “Twitter revolutions” of Moldova and Tehran were nothing of the sort, he said – activism promoted by weak ties is correspondingly weak.
Even some of the critical responses to Gladwell’s piece have granted that some scepticism is overdue. In the Guardian, Leo Mirani wrote that it was “right to be sceptical of social media’s rah-rah brigade” before insisting that, actually, it was all about your definition of activism:
activism extends to changing the minds of people, to making populations aware of what their governments are doing in their name, to influencing opinion across the world…
Problem is, social networks are so busy influencing opinions that people no longer have time to weigh their value. Not unlike the user-generated editorial agendas discussed in the previous post, there is clear danger that social environments too readily pander to laziness, selfishness and rubbernecking. In a world of weak ties, it’s the weak causes that swamp the attention.
We at Cision are always ready to embrace the change, however. As such, the big news this week has been Cheryl Cole’s ejection of Gamu Nhengu from the X Factor.
Our analysis of Team Cole’s social media presence suggests the public reaction is perhaps not as hysterical as some in the mainstream media have suggested. Even so, Facebook activism is de rigeur, and social networks will no doubt remain a bushfield of fanned flames until Nhengu is reinstated just in time for the final.
Or until Darfur is a safe, peaceful haven for its citizens, whichever is easier.