Certainly, Malcolm Gladwell would argue that community cannot really exist digitally. In his (in)famous 2010 New Yorker op-ed, “Small Change,”, Gladwell argues compellingly that digital engagement consists purely of “weak ties activism,” and that websites and the Internet cannot provide what social change has always required: real connections to people who exist in our daily lives. The Internet, by and large, is a transactional and weak escape incapable of provoke real high-risk in activism (and, by extension) communities.
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.
He goes on to argue that it’s a good thing that weak ties exist, because the Internet is all about radical connectivity at scale, but it doesn’t translate into real disruption.
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.
He contrasts this with the actual activism and community-building that leads to real change:
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation —by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.
It’s a great read and highly controversial (at the time), because it argued compellingly that people are being manipulated online to do simple, low-risk things. And that the real beneficiaries of online activism, digital communities, and all of the sorts of social and creative change that they could instill, were actually large corporate and/or political actors willing to exploit these people – not as members of a community, but as commodities to be used as pawns in commerce.
He is diametrically opposed to Clay Shriky’s argument that distributed communities lead to better outcomes. It may lead to greater contributions and participation online, Gladwell asserts, but that participation ultimately matters a lot less than a “real” community of “actual” activsts, contributors, participants, etc.
it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.