Social Activism: Hierarchy vs. Network

The Internet has without a doubt come a long way since it was first invented, but is this necessarily a good thing? Marshall Poe argues in “The Hive” that “networks” like Wikipedia allow for the collaboration of human knowledge. Yet, just because these individuals work well together does not mean activism is achieved. Wikipedians are just editing one another’s pages, they are not participating in any vigorous campaign for change. In “Small Change”, Malcolm Gladwell explains how the Internet has reinvented social activism in a negative way.

“Strong Ties” vs. “Weak Ties”

“Weak ties”, also known as low risk activism, are all of our acquaintances that we know, but don’t really talk to such as random Facebook friends. On the other hand, “strong ties” or high risk activism, are our critical friends who we would sacrifice just about anything for. While I agree that weak ties can be beneficial, it is without a doubt on a much smaller scale. This is beneficial for events like finding a lost phone or searching for an organ donor, but not large scale change such as the civil rights movement. Overall, high-risk activism with strong ties is going to be more successful in most situations. This is because people will be surrounded by others who are important to them and there is little room for conflict and error. The individuals will be more willing to take several risks to achieve a certain goal, which then creates a very powerful movement. If this was between individuals who did not really know each other, there is a good chance that they would not want to make any sacrifices for one another.

“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” (Gladwell 234).,800x800,070,f.u1.jpg

It appears that “networks” are taking the “easy way out” when trying to achieve activism. This lack of motivation is what makes weak ties unsuccessful on their own. Activism should be about supporting one another and standing up for what you believe in. When people have a “strong tie” relationship like Gladwell states, they have a drive and connection and can accomplish almost anything they set their mind to.

Do Networks Really Achieve Activism?

Though, it is clear that networks are effective in spreading awareness about a certain idea, there is a limit to what they can accomplish due to the lack of devotion between the individuals. Anyone can create a post on Facebook, but it is high-risk activism that really makes a difference. Anyone familiar with social media should agree that a lot of pointless arguments start on these “networks”. People argue back and forth, but there is no high risk activism involved so there are no long term benefits. Eventually, the argument just fades and the individuals ignore one another. Gladwell agrees when he writes, “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism” (234). If they did, then it has the potential to be very successful, but that is not the case.

Leadership is Crucial!
“Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?” (Gladwell 236).

Without someone being in charge and setting goals that everyone needs to follow, nothing will be accomplished. In other words, in a group of weak ties there will be a lot of “mistakes” before something truly is achieved. Wikipedia is an example of this because it is a website that allows anyone to add and edit posts. Poe argues, “Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow” (Poe 9). The essence of his argument is that people can be successful by themselves; they do not need someone in charge. Yet, is that always the case? What is going to keep them driven to succeed? High risk activism has a leader, which allows for things to get done in a timely manner. Poe’s assertion that having one leader means that all of the decisions will be biased does not fit the facts. When everyone is trying to incorporate their thoughts in a network, it can be chaotic and there will be times no one agrees. Then what would happen? It will just prevent a solution and the group will get nowhere. As mentioned earlier, a leader would prevent this and allow for a powerful movement to develop.

Hierarchy in the Civil Rights Movement

High risk activism gives individuals a voice to say what they want, but a hierarchy is still followed to make sure progress is being made. Take the civil-rights movement for example. It all started with the four college students from Greensboro, North Carolina. These men were all close friends in school, who wanted blacks to have the same rights as whites. They knew they were not supposed to sit at the long L-shaped bar, but they did anyway. This was a big risk for them, but they knew they had to do something if they wanted change. By the next morning the protest grew to twenty-seven men and even four women.

“What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement” (Gladwell 233).

Since these four men were brave and willing to risk their lives, things finally started to slowly change for black individuals. This could not have been done without their endless effort. Something like this would not have happened if the group was made up of weak ties. If this were to happen in a network, there would be a lot of arguing, but it would ultimately end in the individual’s “blocking” each other to prevent further conversation. Networks are good for quickly releasing information to the public, but they are not the most beneficial when it comes to traditional activism.

Collaboration and Sacrifice Are Needed to Achieve Activism

Poe explains, “Given the right technology, large groups of self-interested individuals will unite to create something they could not produce by themselves” (6).

In other words, when people collaborate their ideas the product is a lot more successful. This may be true for Wikipedia, but this does not always lead to activism. The only reason Wikipedia works in the first place is because it does not ask too much of them (Gladwell 234). This is show when Poe mentions Sanger’s quote, “Humor me,” he wrote. “Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes” (Poe 12). This accessibility allowed Wikipedia to develop into what it is today. Nevertheless, networks are still composed of weak ties. People rarely help others out of the goodness of their heart especially when it comes to dangerous situations. It is a lot easier to share someone’s post about getting a phone stolen than to actually go out and help them find the person who stole it. This is why a lot of people resort to networks because they are more convenient. Yet, just because something is convenient does not mean it is more valuable.

Is There a “Happy Medium?”

The Internet has become such a powerful tool and in many ways is beneficial. However, I do not think it is the most beneficial on its own when it comes to long term effects. High-risk activism with strong ties is going to dominate low risk activism mainly because of the connection it has within its people. Some may argue that low risk activism is better because it is composed of diverse individuals. Though, this is not necessarily the case.

“The more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest” (Gladwell 234).

This really shows that people do follow their friends, which can just create a very powerful group of people who have a strong drive to get a task done and will do whatever it takes to do so. Yet, if Gladwell and Poe combined their ideas they would develop something a lot more beneficial than ever before. To create the strongest activism networks should be used to distribute the information and traditional activism can be used to get the participants mobilized.