loose tie dialogue on strong tie activism

This dialogue is interesting to me for more than the topic, but more the style. The ability to communicate ideas has to be a quality of revolutionaries. In this dialogue something other than communication is happening. It’s something I’ve seen before. At some point I’ll probably come back to this as an illustration of something. I mean there is something happening here.

Taking out the names probably doesn’t conceal the identities enough, but anyway, here we go.


I had a thought this morning that would probably make Three happy. It was: “Suck it, Gladwell…”

Two: booooooooooooo gladwell

Three: yup 🙂

Four: Gladwell was so sure of himsel! Makes it all the better.

Me: ?

Gladwell writes: “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.”

What he means by high risk activism is activism that challenges the status quo.

You guys have done a great job on this internet campaign, but keep it together, keep some perspective. Three mentions that it’s not over, and it’s not over. Our relationship to the corporations that provide internet access are still imbalanced.

Gladwell is completely spot on when he writes: “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.”

‎”Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.”

“High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.”

Are you really arguing with this?

I am not criticizing what you at openmedia are doing. It’s a wonderful thing you are doing, and I think Gladwell would agree.

This campaign is working within the status quo. It is not changing material relationships. It is a low-risk weak tie campaign. It is everything the internet is perfect for.

There’s a distinction Gladwell made that’s good.

One: yeah, there are some things that gladwell says that are spot-on – but unfortunately he also mingles them with sweeping generalizations, opinions presented as fact, and anecdotal ‘evidence’ that make for more compelling reading but weaker a…nalysis. take a look at his comments on the “heroic” nature of the US medical system from a few years ago (esp. in debate with adam gopnik).

I’m thinking about this conversation about his recent blog post on egypt, for example:


though i think one thing this blogger misses is the lack of attention gladwell pays to how social media might affect the trajectory of revolutions (that begin independently of social media, to be sure). would it have been so easy for the jacobin club to take control of popular unrest in france during the revolution in an age of mass communication? or for the hard-line islamists in iran? social media isn’t necessarily about opposing the status quo or about making it more efficient – it’s a malleable tool, as we’re seeing in egypt but also here with the UBB campaign.

have a little faith rodger – we spend pretty much every precious spare moment that we have in our office talking about how we can turn this weak-tie phenomenon that we’re witnessing into a real challenge to the status quo. it’s not easy, because this is categorically different from opportunities to make change in the past – but dismissing it as dead-end ‘slacktivism’ isn’t going to help us figure out how to make best use of these tools and their effects.

Me: This is a perfect example of a weak-tie dialogue. I’ve got to run, but I’ll respond later.

here’s an example of a gladwell quote that i would take issue with “”But [online] networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterises Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure.” How can Gladwell possibly know that this is true? Perhaps if MLK had been able to organize with an online network, it wouldn’t have been so easy to suppress/co-opt/erase the socialist, anti-imperialist elements of the movement, especially after MLK’s death.

i’m not even trying to say that i think i know what would have happened in this counterfactual case – the point is that i don’t, and neither does gladwell even when he tries to claim otherwise. i think we need to remain curious and inquisitive and open to the idea that different historical moments call for radically different ways of organizing – and that new tools actually offer new possibilities.

Me: See, I thought when you said “Suck it, Gladwell…” you were referring to his ideas around social media and activism. I thought you were implying that his ideas around social media and activism were now irrelevant.

I’m not some kind of Gladwellian. I wouldn’t have to say that if we actually knew each other. I could care less what he has to say about the American health care system. It’s not really important here, doesn’t affect the distinction made between strong-tie and weak-tie activism, high-risk and low-risk activism, activism within the status quo and status quo challenging activism. Those distinctions are good and relevant.

How do you define the categorically difference between current and historical opportunities to make change?


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