Is Social Networking Useless for Social Change?

[This article is dedicated to the late Tim Costello, who taught us so much about social movements and organization.]

An October 4 New Yorker article by Malcom Gladwell, "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will not be Tweeted" poses an important question: What if anything is the potential contribution of web-based "social networking" to social movements and social change? The article's answer, drawing primarily on an account of the civil rights movement, is that social movements that are strong enough to impose change on powerful social forces require both strong ties among participants and hierarchical organizations -- the opposite of the weak ties and unstructured equality provided by social networking websites.

Gladwell deserves credit for kicking off a discussion of this question, but that discussion needs to go far beyond the answers he provides, both in conceptual clarity and in historical perspective. This is a modest contribution to that discussion.

For starters, a bit of conceptual clarification. Social networking websites are not a form of organization at all; they are a means of communication. Comparing Twitter to the NAACP is like comparing a telephone to a PTA. They are not the same thing, they don't perform the same kind of functions and therefore their effectiveness or lack thereof simply can't be compared.

There are other category problems as well. "Small Change" juxtaposes "networks" and "hierarchies." It conflates "strong ties" with "hierarchical" organizations. It denies that strong ties can occur as part of networks.These three conceptual presuppositions, which underlie the article's concrete historical analysis, deserve some serious reconsideration.

Economists and social scientists have traditionally divided organizations into "markets" and "hierarchies." Both coordinate multiple players, but in different ways. Markets are based on decentralized exchanges that lead to coordination by "feedback" from past transactions. (People raise or lower their prices based on how much demand there has been for what they are selling, leading in theory to the production of the right amount of different kinds of stuff.) Hierarchies -- armies and corporations, for example -- are based on a centralized control structure that plans coordinated activity and then commands subordinates to implement their assigned pieces of it.

More recently, some interpreters have pointed out that there is a third form, which they have dubbed "networks." Networks coordinate by means of the sharing of information and voluntary mutual adjustment among participants. They are different from markets because their planning is proactive and based on knowledge of other participants' intentions and capabilities, rather than on feedback from past transactions. They are different from hierarchies because their decision-making is decentralized and voluntary rather than centralized and authoritative.

How do the historical experiences of the civil rights movement analyzed in "small change" look in the light of such a clarified set of categories? There has been a vast amount of historical research on the history of the civil rights movement over the past few years. Visible actions like marches, sit-ins, and bus boycotts rested on a deep foundation of culture, social linkages, and accumulated experience of struggle in Black communities in the South. These connections, stretching over generations and diverse spheres of life, were the mulch from which the civil rights movement emerged -- or, perhaps more aptly, became visible to others on the outside. These linkages can be appropriately described as local community networks -- means of coordinating action based in information sharing rather than on either on a market or a command hierarchy.

Far from being able to command the action of these local networks, national civil rights leaders and organizations were largely dependent on them. In general, local leaders made the decision of whether, for example, to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) into town, and they were generally able to veto strategic decisions they did not agree with. They used the national leadership and organizations for their own purposes at least as much as the other way around. This picture represents anything but a hierarchy in which national leaders and organizations (or even local ones) were able to command participation the way it is done in an army, a corporation, or a similar "hierarchical organization."

Examining the Greensboro, N.C. lunch counter sit-in that touched off the sit-down wave of 1960, "Small Change" takes the personal "strong ties" among the initial Greensboro sit-downers as the key to their participation. Two were roommates and all had gone to the same high school, smuggled beer into their dorm room, remembered the murder of Emmett Till, the Montgomery bus boycott, and Little Rock. They discussed the idea of a Woolworth sit-in for a month. They were a "product" of the NAACP Youth Council (although "small change" doesn't even mention whether that organization played a role in the sit-in, let alone organized it.) They had close ties with the head of the local NAACP chapter. They had been briefed on previous sit-ins and attended "movement meetings in activist churches."

What social relations could be less hierarchical than this description? What could better fit the image of the dense social networks of a community in struggle? Would the results have been the same or better had an official of a civil rights organization come into town and tried to command those four students to go to Woolworth's and sit in?

"Small Change" similarly argues that such "strong ties" made the difference between volunteers who did and did not stay with the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The volunteers who stayed with Mississippi Freedom Summer "were far more likely than dropouts to have "close friends who were also going to Mississippi."

Such personal connections are undoubtedly important, but they are hardly the same thing as a hierarchy. The view that such strong ties contribute to the emergence of deep commitment is surely not the same as the claim that hierarchy is necessary to produce such commitment.

"Small Change" goes on to describe pre-Greensboro sit-ins that were formally organized by civil rights organizations and maintains that this argues against a "network" interpretation of the sit-down movement. But it doesn't raise the question of why these more formally organized sit-downs didn't spread and become a movement in the way that the Greensboro sit-in -- initiated by four high school freshmen who apparently were not even members of any organization at the time -- did.

"Small Change" describes the civil rights movement as "like a military campaign" that was "mounted with precision and discipline." Anybody who participated or has reviewed recent research on its history will likely find this description unfamiliar to say the least. Some of the SNCC kids from the Albany, Georgia campaign were even heard to say (perhaps over-deprecating their own strategic acumen) that they had no idea what they were doing. They just kept jumping around until they landed on someone's toes and they hollered and that's how the Albany kids found out who was really opposing them.

"Small Change" points out that "The NAACP was a centralized organization." True enough. But the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s came about explicitly as a break with the policies and domination of the NAACP, an attempt to break out from its hegemony. And the NAACP had a very ambiguous relationship, to say the least, to the direct action civil rights movement.

In the SCLC "Martin Luther King, Jr., was the unquestioned authority." Really? Nobody challenged the fact that he was the leader, but the massively researched biographies of King show that he was being challenged all the time on strategy and policy both by his lieutenants and by the local leadership of the movements he was brought in to "lead." Michael Honey's magnificent book "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign" makes clear just how much authority King exercised over local leaders and other "followers" (authority: none; influence -- even that was pretty marginal a lot of the time).

According to "Small Change," the "black church" was a hierarchical organization in which the minister "usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation." But there were scores of different black churches in each city. In any one, the minister might be able to exercise authority (though if parishioners didn't like what the minster did they could and did switch to other churches). But the idea that these churches collectively represented a unity with a single authority is doubtful. Certainly it does not assort well with historical research portraying the difficulties Martin Luther King, Jr. had holding together the different Montgomery churches during the bus boycott. Crucially, did black ministers have enough authority to order their parishioners to go to jail? Or did the commitment of movement participants come from something other than a command hierarchy?

The idea that the civil rights movement as a whole expressed some kind of unity of command is also dubious. The SCLC was formed because King was unable to win the black Baptist denominations to support his vision. SNCC kids derisively referred to Dr. King as "de Laud." The counter-examples could go on and on.

The capabilities "Small Change" attributes to hierarchies sometimes reach the level of the awesome. It maintains, for example that networks are unlike hierarchies in that they are "prone to conflict and error." Hierarchies are not "prone to conflict and error?"

"Small Change" points out that digital communication would have been of no use in Montgomery, Alabama, "a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church." But does that mean that committed social activism is simply impossible among people who do not have that kind of pre-existing face-to-face connection? If so, there must be no examples in which powerful, committed social movements have developed among people who don't see each other every weekend in church.

This brings us back to the role of social media. Gladwell is surely right when he says social media "are not a natural enemy of the status quo." But that is only the beginning of the discussion. The pertinent question is whether social media can contribute to the process of forming social movements and effective social action, not whether social media can substitute for that process. (A telephone system is not a PTA, but it can sure as heck be useful for getting a few hundred people out to confront the school board or vote in the school board election.)

The evidence here is pretty clear. Social networking websites can play and are playing an important role in finding and connecting people who are beginning to think and feel similar things.They can help participants deepen their understanding and form common perspectives. They can help inform those who use them of possible courses of action.

This doesn't in itself substitute for many of the other things movements need, and need to do. It does not in itself create the kinds of "strong ties" that help give a movement strength, although it may help people find others with whom they want to develop strong ties. (Compare computer-initiated dating, which in itself only connects potential partners but in fact has connected many people who thereupon partnered and married.)

Beyond group formation is the question of power. As Gladwell indicates, ten thousand people sending each other tweets doth not a revolution make, or even major social change. Whatever else, significant social change requires, as Gandhi put it, "noncooperation" with the status quo and a "matching of forces" with those who would maintain it. Social networking cannot in itself provide either of these. But it can be a powerful tool for making such expressions of power possible.

This is not the first time that the relation between social movements and new forms of communication has been considered. A once-influential study published in 1847 observed that workers were beginning to form "combinations"; to "club together in order to keep up the rate of wages"; and to found "permanent associations" to make provision beforehand for occasional revolts. The consequence was an "expanding union of the workers."

This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by Modern Industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralize the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes.

Maybe the role of telegraph and newspapers a century and two-thirds ago is irrelevant to the role of social networking media today. But maybe not.

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