THE BLOG
11/03/2010 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gladwell, the Tea Party and the Truth About Social Media

For the past month or two, social media gurus have been feverishly debating a range of topics -- from whether they deserve Nobel Peace Prizes, to whether or not Twitter was the engine for the Tea Party revolution.

If you missed it, the big controversy started when bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell published an article concluding that social media has little value for social change efforts. And (by design, mind you) his thesis sparked all kinds of impassioned denials and criticism.

Almost entirely missing from the debate is a realistic picture of how long term social change actually works. It's a bit like evaluating new cancer medicines based only on how they effect symptoms like fatigue and muscle pain, rather than whether they actually shrink tumors.

Let's cut through all the exaggerations and misrepresentations to see what social media is actually doing for activism, and how to take advantage of it.

Claim #1. Social Media Speeds Things Up

The reality: It's true that it's easier than ever to spread petitions or start online advocacy groups. And it's true that we're seeing numbers like we've never seen before. Just a few years back, UNICEF gathered a record 90 million signatures for a global online petition urging world leaders to support child rights. Avaaz.org collected more than a million signatures for a petition urging China to show restraint in its actions towards Tibet -- all in less than one week.

But it's not necessarily true that such large numbers always translate directly into impact. Consider for example, the 1964 petition for the release of Nelson Mandela from South African prison, circulated purely by hand and airmail. The petition received 197,387 signatures -- small by today's standards -- but was still enormously influential.

So yes, we can do this more quickly now. But as the standard for "what's big" keeps getting larger, we're also forced to jump through higher and higher hoops to get attention. Smart strategists therefore think not just quantitatively, but also qualitatively -- complimenting the drive for sheer numbers with storytelling techniques, events, and news stunts that can gather visibility. In fact, some might argue that the Tea Party punched above its weight in this election by doing just that -- creating dramatic protests that made their following seem even larger than it may have actually been.

Claim #2. Social Media Makes it Easier to Convince Others About Our Ideas

The Reality: This is one of the most widespread misperceptions about online marketing and activism. But it's not (as Gladwell asserts) because most of our Facebook friends are just acquaintances who don't care about our opinions. To the contrary, numerous studies have shown that our political and moral beliefs are heavily influenced by weak ties. When we see neighbors or acquaintances endorsing a political candidate, or supporting a particular cause, it becomes increasingly acceptable to do so ourselves -- a concept known to social scientists as "social proof."

Unfortunately, though, it's doubtful that Facebook and Twitter make us more likely to engage substantively with people who don't already think just like us. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein once went so far as to argue that the Internet was only balkanizing society -- creating ever more isolated communities who only link to others with similar ideologies. His argument has been strongly contested. But here's a litmus test. If you're a Democrat, how often did your friends post links sympathetically portraying the views of people like Sharron Angle? And if you're a Republican, how often did friends send you admiring articles about health care reform?

A few innovative organizations circumvent this challenge by correctly identifying what can more easily travel across online political and cultural divides -- not ideas, but people. Friendfactor, a start-up social network for gay rights, seeks to broaden support from straight communities by centering its messaging strategy on people instead of politics (disclosure: I'm an adviser). The distinction is key. Gay people on the site are not explicitly asking their straight friends to change their mind about the politics of gay rights, or to declare their own position on the issue. Instead, they're asking for personal support, a request that's much harder to ignore.

People to people connections online: effective and incredibly promising. People pushing political/ideological ideas: much more difficult.

Claim #3. Social Media Enables us to "Crowdsource" Cause-Based Fundraising

The Reality: This is one that's actually true. But again, the hype exceeds reality. One needs only to look at the relatively modest amount of money raised on sites like Causes.com and Facebook groups to glean what most non-profit fundraisers already know. When it comes to internet-based fundraising, we've got a long way to go.

In this respect, Gladwell is partially correct. It's easy to buy widgets online, but we're only likely to take a significant action (like donating money) when the interaction is more than skin deep -- which is not yet social media's strong suit. For example, Groupon.com has been wildly profitable by enabling group purchases for discounted products and services from local vendors. But Groupon's founder Andrew Mason also tried his hand with a similar business to facilitate crowd-sourcing for cause-based fundraising and campaigns. The site, called the Point.com, has experienced nowhere near as much traffic or traction.

Once more, though, the lesson is not about strong or weak ties; it's about putting people and stories rather than just ideas at the heart of the appeal. Users are eager to make microloans to poor-country entrepreneurs on Kiva.org because they can see the photo and story of the individual who will benefit. By contrast, donating to charity online often still feels like an abstract intellectual exercise.

The lesson for online fundraisers: personalize, personalize, personalize. Seemingly obvious, but greatly under implemented.

Claim #4. Social Media Democratizes the Market for Information

The Reality: There's no doubt that armies of bloggers and tweeters have forced governments and companies to be more transparent than ever before. And establishing oneself as an expert is far easier today than it was even ten years ago. But ease of self-publishing doesn't mean that we now have a level playing field for the creation and dissemination of information.

As Matthew Hindman writes in The Myth of Digital Democracy, online traffic patterns are still remarkably concentrated. Despite the ubiquity of bloggers and tweeters, we still get our news predominantly from just a few major media corporations. And it turns out, the majority of blog traffic actually goes to only about 50 blogs. "It may be easy to speak in cyberspace " Hindman writes, "but it is difficult to be heard." At the very least, it's a lot less easy than most of us would imagine.

Survey Says...

Social media is not a panacea, but neither is it an opiate for the masses. It's simply a tool that has lowered the transaction costs of activism in an important way.

The takeaway here is to focus our use of social media on what it does best -- which is connecting individuals in ways that the physical reality of daily life would not allow. Maybe it's a gay teen whose school administrators won't let anti-bullying activists on campus, but who can open up YouTube and see inspiring testimonies from older gay people as part of the "It Gets Better" campaign. Maybe its two friends who see each other only once a month, but take note of what the other posts on Facebook about how she'll vote in the election.

Yes, of course these connections are not replacements for face-to-face meetings, clever messaging, bold leadership, or smart strategy. (But come on, Malcolm, who ever really thought otherwise?) And yes, collecting a million Twitter followers is not the same thing as actually altering power structures on a significant issue.

Massive social transformations always start with small ripples that, over time, can change the main direction of the tide itself. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, it didn't automatically and inevitably lead to the Protestant Reformation. But Martin Luther's message was unlikely to have reached such a widespread audience if the European population hadn't been made literate by the spread of printed books.

Forget the exaggerated claims of the naysayers and the evangelists -- the so-called "social media revolution" is indeed in bloom. And it is, in fact, being Tweeted, Facebooked, YouTubed, and Digged. Just don't expect it to look like a traditional revolution -- because long-term social transformations never do.