Red Ties

Back at the start of this month I posted a piece about the limitations of social media as tools for political action. It has subsequently come to my attention that Malcolm Gladwell had published an article in the New Yorker the previous month which makes substantially the same points, though much more eloquently of course. We even used the same Gil Scott-Heron reference as a tagline.

Unsurprisingly, Gladwell’s piece generated rather more response than mine, from, among others, Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, David Dobbs at Wired and Zeynep Tufekci at technosociology. All make good points, mostly focusing on Gladwell’s juxtaposition of weak and strong social ties, but I don’t think that any of them really address the central strand of his (and my) argument; effecting meaningful social change is a difficult thing to do, because it requires directed activity sustained over a long period of time, something that calls for a centralised and hierarchical organisation of the kind which social media is ill-suited to foster.

Having thought about this a bit more, I’m starting to wonder if scepticism about the revolutionary potential of social media is a generational thing. All my political experience has been in movements based around the sort of strong ties that are implied by the word “comrade”, with people, some of whom I have known for decades, that I have worked, lived, studied and socialised with, and who I would trust with my life. Of course these days we communicate by email, Twitter and especially SMS, and conduct our agitation through the web as much as on the street, but our relationships are still founded on those personal bonds. I can’t imagine the same thing developing from contacts that are exclusively internet-based, but maybe that’s just because I haven’t grown up in a landscape where electronically-mediated communication has become the dominant form of social discourse.

Perhaps for future generations “Facebook Friend” will have the same resonance as “Comrade” has for us old Bolsheviks, but I doubt I’ll ever come round to that way of thinking.

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