Fri, October 01 2010

Will the revolution be tweeted?  Gladwell vs. The Dragonfly Effect

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

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Filed under:   Social Media •

I experienced some serious “he said,” “she said,” this week.

First, I read the book Jennifer Aaker (and Andy Smith) wrote about the power of social networks, The Dragonfly Effect. (Full disclosure: I was sent a review copy.) Named for “the only insect that is able to move in any direction when its four wings are working in concert,” the Dragonfly Effect lays out how four key actions can together produce large results online. I liked the book, which was a highly practical field guide to building a passionate community behind causes online. The idea is that by combining the four wings—a focus on a concrete goal, an appealing cause that grabs attention, an experience that engages the individual and a easy call to action—you can generate momentum for a movement.

The book tells a number of stories, the most memorable being the story of the authors’ friend Sameer Bhatia, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who got leukemia and needed an elusive match for a bone marrow transplant in order to live. Through Facebook, YouTube videos, and friends recruiting friends through many other means online, a match was found—but in addition a movement was started to enter donor registries and donate bone marrow. While Bhatia eventually passed away, what lives on is a massive registry of potential donors for others in need of bone marrow transplants. The four wings were flying: a concrete goal, a compelling story and the basis for and call to action. Online organizing prompted offline action.

Then along comes Malcolm Gladwell, who says they have it wrong. While social networks can get a lot of people engaged with simple actions, he says, they won’t truly increase anyone’s motivation or build a movement. He says the story of Bhatia is nice, but it’s not a real movement confronting socially entrenched norms. It’s not a revolution. And revolutions won’t happen online.

You can imagine the reaction. Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outlier fame questioning many social media enthusiasts. They were apoplectic this week with his New Yorker story, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”

In the article, Gladwell is at times overly dismissive and a bit snarky about online organizing , but the thrust of his argument is valid: That the connections we form online are generally looser than those forged in person. Therefore, while online networks work well for information sharing, dissemination of information and innovation, collaboration and marketplace creation, they likely can’t alone prompt deep personal commitment that results in high-risk activism. For revolutions like the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, says Gladwell, you need the strength of human contact and the discipline and strategy of a more hierarchical organization. You need task-oriented, coordinated efforts. Free-flowing online social networks by contrast are the opposite of hierarchies with rules and procedures. They are generally leaderless – which makes them less likely to start revolutions and more likely to struggle with consensus and goal setting. But that leaderless aspect does mean they are resilient and adaptable, as Gladwell puts it. (I’m not sure I agree every single successful offline revolution was a top-down, strategic endeavor, though. There are many exceptions.)

This argument has some people thinking he’s dismissing online organizing as lacking in any value. They’re sputtering that Gladwell doesn’t “get it” and shouldn’t be allowed to proffer an opinion since he doesn’t Tweet. (I think that is silly – I used to be a journalist and just because I didn’t participate in a story didn’t mean I couldn’t cover it.) I’ve read the article twice now, and what he’s saying is that online organizing as it stands now has its limits in the type of commitment and the scale of activism it can prompt. I don’t think he’s saying it has no value in doing good.

Here’s the real question in my opinion: is online organizing not resulting in more change because of its intrinsic limitations or because our sector hasn’t quite sorted out how to build relationships with online supporters effectively, thereby creating offline action? It seems to me the ideal is to be doing both, together, in concert.

Where do I land in Gladwell vs. Dragonfly? I appreciate the thoughtful responses on the issue from Beth Kanter, who rounds up all the views and emphasizes “online and onland” together is the ideal way to effect change. My favorite response was from Jillian C. York, who rightfully says online vs. offline are false poles - both are needed.

York says:

Digital activism has been construed as its own movement, a new wave of organizing unique to the 21st century digital world. In fact, digital tools are complementary to “traditional” activism, for a number of reasons: They allow organizers to quickly mobilize large numbers of people; they help draw media attention to causes, and quickly; they allow for a centralized portal of information. But by drawing a distinct line between “traditional” and “digital” (or online and offline, if you prefer) activism, pundits and journalists are doing a disservice to both the utility of digital tools and to the resilience of traditional advocacy.

I could not agree more. Real world, “onland” human contact forges the deepest of ties and will always be the most powerful of motivating experiences. But online organizing can also have a role in change, for the very reasons York cites. And we must learn how to create relationships with supporters that are rich enough to succeed online and off.

If I want to make change, I want both tools. Give me the bonds of the real world and the scale of the Internet. The ties may vary in strength and scope, but that is what makes them so powerful when bound together.  The revolution may not begin and end on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean Twitter has no role in change.


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