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Gladwell vs. Kanter: Can Revolution be Tweeted?

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"Social media powers social networks for social change."

Beth Kanter and Allison Fine offer that thesis in The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change. They argue that transformation can result from online technologies, including social networking sites, blogs and wikis.

In recent weeks, the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell has stirred debate by criticizing this and other broad notions about the power of social media. In an article, Gladwell suggests that, at best, social media can make things more efficient. However, such technologies cannot fundamentally alter the status quo or foment social revolution.

Maybe not -- though both Kanter and Fine took to their respective blogs to contest Gladwell's claims, which are driven by a focus on past efforts at social activism and protest. Activism is not the only way to bring about social change, however. And technology advances have altered society (think of the introduction of steam, of the printing press and of the automobile) providing a new status quo. Finally, small changes can lead to bigger things. But not always better things.

In their book, Kanter and Fine focus in part on the way foundations operate, and on the way the next generation of "digital natives" will give: responding to causes rather than individuals and organizations. The authors contend that future individual givers will be inclined to join or support a network of people and organizations that collaborate to tackle an issue. And foundations have given rise to crowd-source grant-making, as I've discussed in previous blogs.

Kanter and Fine believe that transparency will increase in the nonprofit sector. They envision more organizations operating with a "hive" architecture, rather than hierarchies or in silos. And they imagine that everyone in a hive organization, not just an organization's leader or communications staff, would be engaged in true, two-way interactions with people on the outside.

Even if, citing Gladwell, "the revolution will not be tweeted" -- and there has been too much hullabaloo over technology's power -- social media offer tools, which, when used to full advantage can promote transparency, collaboration and a new openness to ideas from unusual sources. Surely these are values to promote, especially in the world of social change. But -- as Digg and its Digg Patriots demonstrate -- this tool can be used to distort as well as to discover. Intentions matter.

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