Social activism has recently started to be looked upon in a new light. One reason these studies have started is due to the internet providing a new platform for activism to flourish and be compared to normal activism. Malcolm Gladwell explains some of these connections in his article “Small Changes”. Gladwell shows that people connect in different ways when comparing the internet to social gatherings. These differences in connection, that Gladwell calls strong or weak ties, lead to the effective strength the social movement has behind it. Another article written by Marshall Poe called, “The Hive,” explains the history of Wikipedia in full. Wikipedia’s function and format was not what the creators had set out to make. The creation was called Nupedia: an encyclopedia based on the hierarchy model. Larry Sanger believed in this model and held to its ideals even when monitoring Wikipedia. Poe shows how this idea is challenged, and eventually this idea is discarded in order to produce the Wikipedia we know today. After reviewing these two articles, I believe that Sanger is justified in his doubts about the new Bazaar model that was taking over Wikipedia. Sanger is correct in his idea about Cathedrals, or hierarchies, being more reliably productive and focused because, even if he wasn’t aware, recent studies, that Gladwell brings to light show how much more potent hierarchies are.
Gladwell states that hierarchies are dependent on strong ties between the people involved in the social movement. Gladwell uses a study, by Doug McAdam, on the Freedom Summer that suggests,
“High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon” (Gladwell 5).
The Freedom Summer is the summer in which black rights movements truly started to gain traction. The reason this is thought to be is due to the close connections people had in these movements. Though Nupedia, the predecessor of Wikipedia, was built on this principle it did not fare well. This does not mean these “strong ties” were not used at all in Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s creation came from a personal conversation where Sanger listened to his friend Ben Kovitz for Ideas. Poe states that,
“Kovitz brought up the wiki and sketched out “wiki magic,” the mysterious process by which communities with common interests work to improve wiki pages by incremental contributions” (Poe 12).
Wikipedia would not exist today if Sanger did not have these connections. When applying these strong ties to a social movement such as the Freedom Summer, people show great loyalty and work ethic. These people fought for what they believed in, even in the face of death at times, and are more likely to do so if they have close friends or even family tied to the movement. This is not the only type of connection that Gladwell assesses though.
On the other side of the social movements, we have weak ties that are formed over the internet or social networks. These movements are based around the acts of individuals on social media who do not share the same bonds as those we have mentioned before. I believe they have less invested in the movement and the people within them due to the innate properties of social media. Facebook, a popular source of network type activism, is
“a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life” (Gladwell 6).
Such impersonal connections do not leave the Facebooker with the same drive to accomplish ground breaking acts that will change the world as we know it. Though I agree that social networks will not produce major changes, if any at all, I still believe networks are very good at certain tasks.
What Networks Can Do
The internet has the power to draw enormous amounts of people together. Although allowing for information to be gathered and shared at uncontested rates through social media, this does not lead to grand ideological social change. Poe writes of the history and combined works of Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Nupedia, the first site created, used what Poe calls the Cathedral model. The Cathedral had information that “was guarded by a core group of developers” (Poe 9). This is what Gladwell would deem a hierarchy. I agree that this site (comprised by a group of people who are working together in a common goal guided by the actions of a few leaders) is in fact a hierarchy, yet this format is not as successful as the Bazaar, or network, at gathering information. Gladwell admits to this fact stating,
“If every entry in Wikipedia were to be erased tomorrow, the content would swiftly be restored, because that’s what happens when a network of thousands spontaneously devote their time to a task” (Gladwell 9).
Sanger attempted to use a hierarchy with Wikipedia. He oversaw what was going on and held tight to the Cathedral he knew. In the end, Sanger relinquished his power and turned the website over to be edited and run by the people. This lead to the format of Wikipedia that Gladwell refers to as
“Enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations” (Gladwell 9).
This Bazaar, or network, excels at gathering large numbers of people who can all contribute small amounts for a great effect. Wikipedia is not a form of social activism, but instead it is a form of information gathering. The difference in activism and information gathering is in the definition itself, as put by Wikipedia: activism is efforts made to alter social, political, economic, and/or environmental policies to improve society. When it comes to social movements, networks and weak ties appear to be far less effective at creating a large change.
Strong Ties: Then and Now
Strong ties and hierarchies have had drastic effects on society throughout the ages. For example, take the Freedom Summer Project that was run systematically and efficiently by a hierarchy. The people came to support the cause with their friends and families and were ready for as much time as needed that had all been planned out for them. The hierarchy is able to accomplish precise and organized tasks, like creating a “carpool system (that) moved with ‘military precision’” (Gladwell 11). Even groups that are controversial can be analyzed. Gladwell mentions how
“Al Qaeda was most dangerous when it was a unified hierarchy. Now that it has dissipated into a network, it has proved far less effective” (Gladwell 10).
When Al Qaeda was connected personally to one another through strong ties actions could be taken effectively and efficiently. On the other hand, networks struggle to do more than create awareness for a subject. If this is all social media can do, asides from gather information, then it is not hard to see why “no one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system” (Gladwell 10). Poe believes that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” (Poe 9); I concede that with enough people looking over information, problems can be found and quickly routed. However, I believe that the problem is the eyeballs are only that, onlookers. People become onlookers to a situation when weak ties become involved.
Pros and Cons
Hierarchies have a general way of making large change through concentrated effort and tenacity. While networks are shorter lived movements that are primarily used to spread awareness of a subject. Networks, on the other hand, with their weak ties are nearly incapable of bringing about the types of change that you find when strong ties are present. People use networks to allow information to spread. This helps grow awareness and educate the public. However, when it comes time to act networks lack the drive and passion that strong ties build.A person who is invested and takes action with the strong connections they have made will often go out and show the world what needs to be done. These acts are the ones that lead society to change. Though I wish networks would be more effective at changing the world as we know it; I believe that if something truly needs to be changed, then we must rely upon our strong ties and hierarchies to achieve the change.