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Why social media matters

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Megan Weintraub oversees Oxfam’s work with social media and online advocacy.

meganIt may seem strange, given the focus of my job, but I arrived late to Facebook. When I first considered joining, it seemed like a grand experiment in narcissism rather than a good use of my energy, and certainly not a tool for social change. Eventually, I caved when my niece was born and the photos went up. All of a sudden, I had a reason to join my friends and their friends in this bizarre space of “likes” and “wall posts.”

As a fellow Facebook skeptic, I understand Malcolm Gladwell’s critique of social media in his recent New Yorker article “Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” Gladwell challenges the notion that social media tools like Facebook and Twitter can create social change, pointing to several examples of our misguided assessment of their role in major global events like the protests in Moldova and Iran in 2009. His conclusions have sparked a public debate about the ways we use social media to educate and motivate supporters.

While working at Oxfam, I have collaborated with others to take advantage of the speed and scale of social media. We’ve organized events, posted videos highlighting the work of our partners, and updated supporters about Oxfam’s emergency response to the Haiti earthquake. These examples share more than space on the Oxfam America Facebook wall. They also demonstrate how “weak ties,” the connections between people who may never shake hands or share a meal, can bring supporters closer to social change taking place on the ground.

Gladwell argues that Facebook and other social media are inherently ill-equipped to coordinate a revolution because of their reliance on these weak ties. He believes a loose group of strangers are unlikely to ever find the collective fervor and mutual accountability necessary to sustain a movement against the status quo. Facebook, he says,  “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.”

While Gladwell is right to point out that we often overhype the promise of shiny digital tools to deliver large-scale change, he misjudges the current relationship between these tools and the organizers who use them. It’s true that social platforms like Twitter and Facebook work by linking thousands of people who would never otherwise meet, yet it’s this precise attribute of an online network – its ability to minimize the obstacles of time and distance that can sometimes hinder effective real-world organizing – that hold potential for effecting real change. A now-classic example was during the Obama presidential campaign, when organizers used social media and other new media tactics to recruit and sustain an offline network of volunteers.

If we are truly committed to helping people find ways to get involved, whether they have five minutes or five years to give, then we must value contributions (what Gladwell termed “sacrifice”) all along the spectrum. Further, we must dedicate ourselves to meeting people where they are—whether they live in our physical neighborhoods or our online networks.

In the end, these digital tools are just tools. One million “likes” will never replace the strong-tie affiliations Gladwell reminisces about. A Facebook wall post won’t translate into instant social change. But even when we’re hesitant at first, it will keep us logging in—and give us a simple way to stay connected.

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  1. Pingback: Will the next revolution be tweeted? – Aid Debates | Good Intentions Are Not Enough Will the next revolution be tweeted? – Aid Debates | An honest conversation about the impact of aid

  2. anadunlop2@aol.com'Ana Arellano

    I find it kind of nervy that Gladwell uses the Civil Rights Movement as a comparison to social media for a social change movement, and how he uses it. The wrongness of what was going on in the south, and especially to a people that had already endured over a century of slavery, was so clear-cut and close to home. It is true that a superb organization with a hierarchy and churches beats social media. Meeting face to face to promote a cause also probably beats social media. As usual, Gladwell is both fascinating and wrong at the same time.

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  3. jasonwhat@gmail.com'Jason Wojciechowski

    Great post Megan. Gladwell seems to suggest (without quite saying) that low-risk activism keeps people from high-risk activism like the Woolworth sit ins. I agree that people should take action wherever they are comfortable. Also, there is no evidence that low-risk activism keeps people from taking part in high-risk activism when asked.

    My criticism is:
    1. Gladwell makes false comparisons, like saying Save Darfur is ineffective, because they have so many Facebook fans, but have raised little money from them. Yet, Save Darfur does not have a goal of raising money, but effecting political change as I outline in this post.
    http://futuremediachange.com/2010/10/fmc-wire-malcolm-gladwell-wins-argument-with-self-edition/

    2. The activism of organizations like Oxfam does not necessarily call for civil disobedience because it is an effort to channel “political will,” not break laws to highlight their injustice. Indeed, the activism of Civil Rights would be useless for Americans interested in effecting change in DRC, Sudan, or helping victims of disaster in Haiti or Pakistan. Still, the question remains: are we more apathetic today, or if the situation calls for it, are we willing to take the same risks as activists were in the 1960s? Should Oxfam and other advocacy organizations be asking for more from supporters?

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  4. Pingback: From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green » Blog Archive » Why Facebook and Twitter won’t be leading the revolution

  5. sueincork@yahoo.com'Sue

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your writing is very diplomatic and I appreciate that you looked at both sides of the coin – the fact that social media has its weaknesses but also that time and distance are elements we’ve been able to use in our favor.

    I don’t know if there will ever be one, single answer – to achieve global peace, to end hunger, to stop child trafficking, etc., – but at the moment, I think we have to take what we can so long as we use these tools effectively. I don’t think a single solution or approach toward raising awareness, community mobilizing, etc., would be logical either – with all the people in the world who want to help, with our rich/colorful diversity and with geographical remoteness a factor for some…multiple tools that include digital media are important nowadays, we just have to be mindful in how we use them.

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  6. robinp823@yahoo.com'Robin

    Social media, in whatever form, is in fact an action. It is an action one’s thought, one
    s time and intention. These actions alone are a step in raising awareness,keeping the discussion moving and undoubtedly serve as a catalyst towards more direct action. Direct action or involvement has to start somewhere and the social media is a fine inspiration.

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