Strong and Weak Ties

Hierarchy is an important social construct, that without, it would be nearly impossible to make any type of large changes; however, they are not always the best form of structure. As discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s article Small Changes, the Civil Rights Movement would not have been successful without the organization and order that inherently come with the establishment of hierarchies.The activist were able to establish leaders, rules, and organization, which worked to end segregation, which was the result of a societal hierarchy. Marshall Poe in his article, The Hive, discusses how hierarchies were detrimental to the founding of Wikipedia. Hierarchies can be both essential and detrimental.

Strong Ties

Gladwell describes the type of relationship that was necessary between the activists of the Civil Rights Movement and their cause as “strong ties”, which helped them “persevere in the face of danger”. Strong ties are what made it possible for hierarchy to be established and respected. This type of discipline was possible because those participating in the activism were agreed strongly with the mission and had the strong relationship with those in the group that made them respect the leadership, but also feel supported and willing to participate in high-risk activism. The Civil Rights Movement was based around the hierarchy that they formed through organizations such as the N.A.A.C.P., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,and the local churches, which had ingrained leadership and rules that had to be followed where “individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation (Gladwell)”.

Photo of the four men going to protest in Greensboro, North Carolina

Gladwell’s theory of strong ties is extremely useful because it sheds light on the difficult task it was to organize the Civil Rights Movement. He uses the example of the sit in at a diner in Greensboro, North Carolina that was a pivotal moment, which began by four black college students sitting at the counter that was for whites only. Had these men not been good friends — three of them had gone to highschool together and now all lived in the same dormitory — they would not have had the strong ties that were necessary to make that courageous statement. The protests grew so large that there were thousands of other local college students attending.

The type of organization that is needed to make a large social change is almost business like. During the bus boycotts in the 1960s, there was only success because of the roles and dedication. Churches were responsible to keep up the moral of those around them and there were people whose job it was to provide transportation. Everyone working together is what made is possible for the bus boycott to make a difference. Had those individuals not stuck to their roles or not followed the rules, than there would not have been success. Organization, rules, and loyalty were vital for success. What made individuals able to commit to these rules was not whether they believed more in the cause, but

“was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement”,

as Gladwell writes. I agree with his theory that strong ties helped keep the individual accountable for what they do and how they represent the various organizations involved in the movement, but I think he fails to acknowledge the benefits of weak ties and their role in activism.

Weak Ties

Weak ties are made up of individuals without a strong personal connection like friends on social media and acquaintances. These types of groups are not capable of making large social movements because they do not involve high risk activism but rather low risk, like signing up to donate bone marrow or signing a petition. These acts do not put the individual in danger, but works “by not asking too much of them. That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf (Gladwell).” This is how activism can get spread online, but does it really make a difference? Low risk activism is only good for small actions and spreading awareness, after all,

“our acquaintances — not our friends — are our greatest source of new ideas and information (Gladwell).”

I believe this is why low risk of activism is so vital. As Poe quotes, “ Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are swallow”. When we all work together, there can be major social change and perhaps social media is a good foundation for collecting enough eyeballs. While we need strong ties to make a large difference on a social scale, many of these strong ties are first formed from weak ties.

Screenshot of Facebook page Families in Activism which posts about activism opportunities in the South Jersey/Philadelphia area

Networks that are made of weak ties, work together for a common purpose, which Poe discusses in relation to the website Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a large group of people coming together for a common purpose,the formation of the largest online encyclopedia. When discussing the founding of the website, it was important that, “Wikipedia would have an owner, but no leader.(Poe)” These weak ties are vital for the success of the site and it would not be possible if it was created by a group of individuals that had strong ties to each other and the website. Wikipedia operates through the communication of strangers and the spreading of ideas.The fact that these individuals did not have strong ties to one another is what made it possible for the website and the information present on the website to grow so fast. Just as I had quoted from Gladwell earlier, we learn and are exposed to more information from acquaintances than we do from our family and friends. The weak ties of the community on Wikipedia articles are what made it possible for there to be such a wide variety of information available and for the community fact checking one another system established to work so well.

Which is Better?

Strong and weak ties both have their purpose when it comes to activism and the changes that they are able to create. Strong ties are essential for making the large social movements that make the way for large social changes. Weak ties are essential for the spreading of information that would not have been accessible otherwise. These ties are more tangible for the everyday person that may not be willing to participate the high risk forms of activism. This provides an avenue for everyone to do little things that make a difference. Perhaps through these weak ties, strong ties can be made.

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