I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker a few weeks ago by columnist Malcolm Gladwell that provides some real insight about the way social media works, and how we all should think about it. What Gladwell observes in his article, “Small Change,” is that social media promotes a “weak tie phenomenon” that has its benefits, but it doesn’t have the strength to drive a revolution:
“The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations.”
But what Gladwell points out is that is there are few Twitter accounts in Moldova, and that Twitters in English to organize protests will have little impact in Iran where the populace speaks Farsi. Social media is a great communications tool, but it lacks the galvanizing power that many social media evangelists would have us believe Facebook and Twitter have: “Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change.”
Much of the article makes parallels to the civil rights movement and acts of social consciousness and change that have had a real impact. He tells the story of four black college students who stage a protest at an all-white Greensboro lunch counter in 1960. When they are refused service, the ripples extended to promote sit-ins throughout the Carolinas and ultimately as far away as Texas, without the benefit of e-mail, Twitter, or Facebook. What do these protesters have in common? Strong ties of association because they all have relatives or know someone directly affected by segregation. The four students who started the protest were close school friends, and their protest was fueled by mutual support – a strong-tie phenomenon. Consider how many of your Facebook friends or acquaintances are willing to stage a boycott or March on Washington?
“The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism 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. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.
So when approaching social media for marketing purposes, you need to be conscious of the fact that Twitter and Facebook friends are weak-tie connections, and there is a big distinction between request to connect and call to action. Since this is an election year, it has been interesting to watch the role of social media as a campaign tool. You can sign up to support candidates or propositions on the ballot by signing petitions on Facebook, but how far will such activism go toward garnering votes or campaign contributions? Is it more effective than direct mail or robocalls?
As Gladwell writes,”The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.” So if you are looking to social media to revolutionize your next marketing campaign, you might want to reconsider your expectations.