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The Strength of Tweet Ties

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, September 28 2010

Down in our comments, North Carolina organizer and general online doer Ruby Sinreich points to a nice post from University of Maryland (Baltimore) sociologist Zeynep Tufekci in which she makes a learned case that Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece yesterday on modern activism is giving insufficient weight to the relationships that exists between people who don't know each other that well. In the '70s, you might know, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter taught us that these "weak ties" are the way in which many of us get the jobs that we do. Tufekci argues that they can also be the glue that holds together networks, themselves of some valuable strength. Here's Tufekci:

One, the key issue facing activists who wish for real social change is the mismatch between the scale of our problems (global) and the natural scale of our sociality (local). This is a profound problem and more, less, social media is almost certainly a key element of any solution. Second, the relationship between weak and strong ties is one of complementarity and support, not one of opposition. Gladwell has written about weak and strong ties before and continues a tradition of contrasting them as ontological opposites, somehow opposing and displacing each other. That is a widespread conceptual error and rests upon an inadequate understanding of these concepts. Large pools of weaker ties are crucial to being able to build robust networks of stronger ties – and Internet use is a key to this process.

This question of the nature of the new (media) relationships formed/maintained/grown on Twitter, Facebook, or what-have-you, and what they mean for modern social organizing and the future of political change is, in my humble opinion, a wonderful debate.

And to stretch a bit, the-nature-of-our-ties has implications not only in activism, but, I think, on much of our modern lives. Take the evolution of news and media, for example. Part of Eli Pariser's take on what he calls "filter bubbles" includes a mention of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg saying that, "a squirrel dying in front your house may be more relevant to your interests right now that people dying in Africa." There's a good chance that Zuckerberg's right; we're not always the most thoughtful of creatures, and that's more or less the business model behind such projects as Outside.in.

But a tweak on that is that the squirrels of our interest aren't necessarily defined by geography anymore, whether we're talking about news or our political interests. Ruby Sinreich, for example, I've met in person only a handful of times, but I follow her on Twitter. The two interactions -- infrequent passing interactions offline and our near daily reading of each other's thoughts online -- seem, to borrow and slightly twist a phrase from Tufekci, "one of complementarity and support." We have a good deal in common, even if we live hundreds of miles apart. That's a sort of relationship that seems neither particularly strong nor particularly weak, but one that's absent from Gladwell's take on the nature of modern activism.

For more on this topic, the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has a great round-up of his commenters' thoughts on Gladwell's piece.

Update: We've reposted Zeynep Tufekci's full piece here.

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