Brave New World
Malcolm Gladwell throws some heavy punches at social media in his latest piece in The New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” I’ve been a big Gladwell fan ever since “The Tipping Point,” but I think he’s gone too far on this issue – or maybe not far enough.
Gladwell makes two central arguments: 1) Real social action – the kind that brings about important societal change (like the Civil Rights movement) – is a “strong tie” phenomenon. That is, the majority of activists are not only ardent believers, but they also have deep, close personal connections to other people in the movement. In contrast, social media networks have loads of people – but their connections are pretty shallow. 2) Effective change movements require a hierarchy with clear lines of decision-making and authority, versus the broad, flat consensus structure that comes along with social networks.
OK, but here’s where I think Gladwell hasn’t gone far enough. As trite as it sounds, thanks largely to the Internet, we live in a small world. I think we cannot look at social problems without acknowledging the context in which we operate. In our 24/7 real-time communications universe, there’s a constant barrage of social causes vying for our attention. Perhaps we will not bring about real change [for animals] a la a [social] network that operates by consensus; but neither will we achieve real change without it. The network exists, and therefore it must be part of the solution. In my opinion, Gladwell makes a false distinction. There is no hierarchy versus network. There’s both.
The way I see it, shelters and other local humane organizations are perfectly structured to take advantage of an integrated approach to achieving change. The formal hierarchy of an organization – typically including a governing board, a director, and staff – can effectively set vision and see to critical day-to-day operations (we wouldn’t want all of the daily tasks of animal care decided by consensus; we’d never get anything done and the quality of care would be inconsistent, if not tenuous). A network is ideally suited, though, to something which a hierarchy cannot do well – constant contact with the community. Whether it’s spreading the word about animals waiting for adoption or encouraging people to lobby for an important piece of anti-cruelty legislation – there’s nothing like personalized messages to break through the din of social problems in order to get someone to act. And yes, lots of the ties in our networks are shallow – but who’s on your social network? I bet you’ve got some loose, shallow ties, but I bet your family and close friends and colleagues are on there as well!
Here’s where I think Gladwell really misses the point – but let’s make sure we don’t. The hierarchy (e.g. the shelter) – well-suited to designing and executing strategy – can enlist the network for focused activism. The network, in turn, can keep the community up-to-date and bring new ideas, questions and voices into the mix. Boundaries between the two should be permeable so that communications go both ways and so that members of the network have opportunities to move into the formal hierarchy.
I’m just beginning to get my head around what it means to work for a cause in this brave new world. I would appreciate hearing what you think – and would love to know some of your triumphs and challenges in integrating hierarchy and network.