Weak Links and Social Activism on Social Networks

Last Wednesday in my Social Media Marketing class we talked about social structure and the concept of weak vs strong ties between people. The general consensus is that social networking sites are in the vast majority weak ties between people. Sure, we are Facebook friends with the people we see in real life, but most of our “friends” are people we rarely see or speak to and that suits us just fine. This fact about the nature of online relationships is often used to say that they are of little value, regardless of their number, because they are so low-involvement.

In a recent article, Malcolm Gladwell addresses the possible implications of these relationships for the utility of social networking in the realm of activism: The New Yorker: “Small Change” – Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell brings up the illusory role that Twitter, darling of the modern western media, played in organizing opposition protests in the Moldova and Iran to show a series of flaws in the popular idea that social media represents a watershed innovation affecting the way social causes are organized. Anyone who uses Facebook will be aware of the numerous causes that use the website to keep followers informed, but how effective is this practice at keeping followers involved?

Gladwell’s article implies that the answer is moderately. They are an effective way of fast communication but the nature of people’s weak ties diminishes their impact. Articles such as: Freakonomics: “How Twitter-Based Was Iran’s Twitter Revolution” and Foreign Policy: “The Twitter Devolution” have shown that the real activists on the ground still mobilized through word of mouth. Twitter was mainly a channel for communication with the normally closed off West. There is definite value to this citizen journalism informing the rest of the world, but the value that Twitter provides to social activist causes must also be measured by how well it can be used by the people in country to get out and march. In Iran people reached out to those they knew well, their strong ties, to protest. Social media was certainly useful to spread news and video among protesters with greater ease than could have ever been possible in previous movements, a point Gladwell acknowledges, but that isn’t really sufficient to involve the populace.

Now jumping up to present day attempts at social activism on social networking sites we are presented with the “I Like It On” Facebook status update. For those who don’t know the campaign involves women updating their status about where they leave their handbag in a sexually suggestive manner (such as: ‘I like it on the dining room table’). The campaign is an effort to raise awareness about breast cancer and some have questioned it’s impact: Wall Street Journal: The ‘I Like it On’ Meme. The article raises the question: what can you effectively use social networks to get people to do? Gladwell would say that the weak links of social networks are unlikely to inspire many followers to organize in support of the cause. Add to that the fact that most people already know about breast cancer and a further question arises. What is the point of ‘I like it on’ and other viral campaigns?

I think in cases like this where there is no real gain in awareness viral marketing campaigns still have some value in maintaining “top of mind”. While the meaning of “I like it on the coffee table” could be a bit more obvious, all this low-level chatter about an issue is of some value. I draw parallels with traditional TV ads such as the Budweiser Frogs Commercial. I think this is a great example because it is a message that has spread like wildfire but without much lasting impact. It gets people to remember breast cancer but it doesn’t really inform them much. Even more dedicated groups like that for the movie Gasland really only target those who already know about the cause. A facebook page is good marketing for sure. Many people will see the movie because of such an online presence but is it really an adequate way to get people to volunteer their time offline to be advocates in a meaningful way? I think that is a type of change in behavior that requires a strong-tie relationship to have a major affect on someone.

In the end, we may not be making any serious advocates, or best friends, or saving Darfur, or becoming brand-loyalists through Facebook and Twitter alone but perhaps the ongoing conversation means that we are keeping each of these acquaintances, causes, and companies in mind in ways that add up to a big change in the way we interact with each other.

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