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What Gladwell Gets Wrong: The Real Problem is Scale Mismatch (Plus, Weak and Strong Ties are Complementary and Supportive)

BY Zeynep Tufekci | Tuesday, September 28 2010

We're pleased to repost this essay on Malcolm Gladwell and online activism by Prof. Zeynep Tufekci of the University of Maryland, with her permission, from her blog Technosociology. Not only does she engage Gladwell, who in our opinion argues for an unnecessary conflict between the value of strong-ties vs weak-ties, she also creatively engages the ongoing debate between writers like Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov over the role of the internet in democratization. IMHO, she nails it. -- Micah Sifry

Malcolm Gladwell has written an interesting piece in the New Yorker, arguing that real social change occurs when strong, rather than weak-tie networks, organize hierarchically, rather than in a de-centralized network structure. His example contrasts the lunch-counter protests in Greensboro, North Carolina in the sixties with the low-stakes activism through social media. While he makes many valid points, his key argument is misguided.

I will make two main points in this post. 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, not 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.

Scale of Our Problems (Global) versus the Scale of our Sociality (Local) and Social Movements

The main problems facing humanity today are climate change, resource depletion, economic devastation, environmental destruction and for those unfortunate to be living in particular regions of the world, war, epidemics, and dire poverty. (Most of the last group, is composed of people with very few resources and no influence and at the mercy of larger powers so let me join the world in callously and shamefully ignoring their plight for the moment).

But all the main problems in the first group are global in scale and just cannot be affected at the local level. Arguing about how to organize lunch-counter sit-ins reminds me of the generals fighting the last war. Want to change the environmental laws in your city council so your town recycles better? Knock yourself out (I’m all for it) but that will hardly make a dent with the global climate trainwreck that is fast headed our way. Want to force corporations in your state to make sure their employees aren’t so poor that they are on Medicaid and foodstamps, i.e. effectively subsidized by the regular taxpayers? Sure, and make sure to smile when you wave bye-bye to them as they leave for a more favorable state or country. The race-to-the-bottom structure that has been enacted through decades of neoliberal policies has effectively freed the powerful from constraints at the local level. The problem isn’t we can’t organize lunch-counter sit-ins or high-risk actions; the problem is they don’t matter much. Our sociality tends to be local the scale of the action required to confront today’s problems is global.

To effectively deal with the issue of climate change as a real solution requires equity and enforcement at the global scale – billions of people, hundreds of nations. (Thus, this is a multi-level problem). Currently, there is no organization with reach, power or jurisdiction to effectively address this issue. The only globally-organized actors are large and powerful interests -- corporations and nation-states. To make these powerful actors behave in a sustainable manner would require gutting all their alternatives and completely encircling them so that they cannot escape from citizen mandates.

No, we need to be able to tell them, you cannot pollute in China, or pay your workers a pittance in Indonesia, or leave them without health insurance in the United States, or move your factories, and your monies, and your capital, and your infrastructure at will, from one end of the globe to the other, as if the trail of misery and destruction you leave behind is of no consequence. We need to make it consequential for them everywhere, all the time, simultaneously.

Lunch-counter sit-ins in a few places? Even at the national scale? Maybe we’ll make a few powerful executives smile with bemusement. What we need is simultaneous action for citizen-powered mandates on state and corporate conduct. That should wipe a few grins off smug faces. Does anyone imagine we can organize something on that global scale without the Internet? Let me know.

Now, I agree with Gladwell on many of his points about inflating the importance of Twitter, say, in Iran, and Evgeny Morozov is absolutely correct that this cuts both ways: increased technology also brings increased surveillance capacity. And I hate the example in Clay Shirky's book about the Wall Street employee who leverages his social network to hunt down a teenager who stole a friend’s stupid expensive stupid shiny stupid new phone (even though he was in the right, the idea of people so powerful spending so much time and effort –and mobilizing tens of thousands of people at some point– to make the police chase down a misguided teenager and arrest her for such a petty crime makes my skin crawl).

That said, Shirky is absolutely right in both of his latest books. The Internet is the key to our collective action problem – it’s the only tool that lowers the barriers for vast numbers of ordinary people to coordinate, motivate and engage in consequential action. If, one day, we manage to organize the equivalent of lunch-counter sit ins simultaneously in one hundred countries, you know it will be organized online. You might go with your close friends, or you might go with strangers and find yourself having become close friends.

Weak versus Strong Ties

Which brings me to the fact that strong versus weak ties should not be seen as opposites but rather as supporting and complementary dynamics. One key point is that Internet bolsters strong ties directly and indirectly. Directly, because Internet allows for more frequent, trivial “ambient” communication and that is the bedrock of strong-tie formation. All those tweets about what you had for breakfast that everyone makes fun of? A lot of research shows that if you record ordinary people’s conversations with their close friends and family and you will find that this is exactly what they do – talk about the mundane rhythms of life. Current structures of suburbia, distant homes, moving for jobs, smaller families, etc. all make it harder to engage in that kind of daily interaction – and weaken our communities. The Internet is the opposite of these processes: suburbs took us away from other people and locked us into houses; the Internet opens a door from the house into potentially shared places.

The concept of weak versus strong ties that Gladwell uses often originates from a seminal paper Mark Granovetter, “Strength of Weak Ties.” (I’m going to go technical briefly here.) In this wonderful study, Granovetter isn’t interested in tie-strength per se but at a particular network structure called “bridge ties” — a connection between two internally dense networks that would otherwise be unconnected save for that bridging tie. Presumably because complete data about the structure of people’s social networks was very difficult to obtain, Granovetter suggested using weak ties as a proxy for bridges.

In this conceptualization, the benefit of weak ties is not that they were weak per se, but rather that the tie network of a weak tie is presumed to be less likely to overlap with one’s own tie network and thus more likely to have access to differential resources and information. There are two further assumptions to make this work: strong ties are likely to already know each other (and thus be part of a densely connected network) and strong-tie alters are also more likely to be similar to ego in terms of resources and attributes due to homophily, similarity of origin, or convergent evolution. (I’ll perhaps blog later; both of these assumptions, technically called “open triads” and homophily of strong-ties is likely much weaker in today’s world).

It’s important to note that whether or not a tie is a bridge is dichotomous. Tie-strength, on the other hand, is continuous (and dynamic as ties vary over time in strength). Granovetter, and many others after him, have divided ties into weak and strong by artificially drawing lines. However, the key contrast was, and remains, between bridge and non-bridge ties; conflating them as weak and strong ties and then contrasting them as if they were direct opposites is conceptually incorrect. In reality, people’s ties range from very strong to very weak. Strong-ties become weak over time and vice-versa. Weak ties and strong ties are not ontological opposites.

Internet as a Key Resource for Tie-Formation

Which brings me to my final point; Given the decline of importance of place and family in providing people with strong ties (one’s very close ties used to be immediate family, kin, neighbors, etc), where do you think people will turn to if they are to regenerate robust communities composed of strongly-connected individuals? Their weaker ties. All those Facebook friends that Gladwell and others take turns making fun of? That is exactly where most people can potentially draw stronger ties. Tweets/discussions about lunch and naps and status updates about dates and breakups? Bedrock of sociality and of social networks of stronger and weaker ties. Do we really think that strong communities spend their time discussing the finer points of flexible specialization in the labor process under post-Fordism? Research shows that adding online connectivity to an otherwise face-to-face space like a neighborhood increases the general level of bonding because it increases the channels of communication (See work by Keith Hampton, Barry Wellman or Gustavo Mesch, among others). (Think of a neighborhood mailing list – it lets neighbors connect even though they may hardly have time to get together regularly given long-commutes and other responsibilities – Internet allows asynchronous, rich communication freed from requirements of coordinating time and place).

Consequently, pools of weaker ties, organized around shared affinities and interests, will likely become most people’s source for closer friendships. As we introduce people in our increasingly geographically-dispersed networks to each other, we can recreate the denser, closely-knit communities of mutual-interdependence that do indeed give rise to social movement. Internet and social media will clearly be a key in this process because going back to place-based ties is not only not possible, and more importantly, inadequate, for rising up to meet the global, multi-level, complex problems we as all of humanity face today.

New movements that can bring about global social change will still require people who interact with each other regularly, and trust and depend on each other in somewhat dense networks. Our only hope is if those networks span the globe in a tightly-knit, broad web of activity, interaction, personalization. Real change will come only if we can make friends we care about everywhere and we make bridge ties that cover the world in a web of common humanity that is bigger and more powerful than a handful of corporations and corrupt, self-perpetuating class of politicians.

So, maybe seeing a tweet about what an war orphan in Afghanistan had for breakfast (nothing), what a worker in a sweatshop in China had for lunch (nothing because there is no lunch break), or where a survivor of one of the increasing numbers of large-scale climate events like massive floods is sleeping tonight (on a wet piece of plastic) interspersed into our daily rhythms of communication with our local friends and communities is exactly what we need to organize us into the “hive mind” that everyone is so afraid of when in reality, what is destroying our opportunities for individuality and creativity, subverting us from realizing our human potential is not that we are tweeting about trivialities, but that the governance of our planet has been taken away from us.

I say, bring on the hive mind, please let it be global in scale as nothing less will do, and let Facebook and Twitter lead the way.