In the most recent New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell examines the social activism in the age of social media. If you have any interest in library advocacy, you need to go read it now. The gist of this article is that social media is excellent for reaching a multitude of people, but it lacks some of the strong bonds that turn interest into action.
The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook 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.
This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.
Over at the New York Times “Room for Discussion”, an assortment of pundits have been offering their take on Mr. Gladwell’s article. I can’t possibly sum up all of their articles, so I highly recommend reading all of them. I’ll quote some to hopefully entice you to look closer.
No social movement can succeed without activists willing to take serious risks for their cause. But other factors are also important. These include a critical mass of ordinary citizens who are at least sympathetic to, if not yet actively supportive of, the activist’s cause, and a strategy to reach and persuade as many of those citizens as possible. What makes the Internet revolutionary is not just that it makes it easier for activists to communicate with one another, but that it provides them with powerful new tools for informing and persuading their fellow citizens.
But we should not confuse mobilizing with organizing. The Internet excels at mobilizing people to rally behind political causes (obviously, not all of them democratic) – but someone still needs to engage in long-term strategic organization.
When 1.4 billion people have a chance, however slight, to think and talk directly without censorship and self-censorship, it’s obviously revolutionary, even if it’s not a revolution.
Twitter and Facebook aren’t going to save the world. But when used alongside other tools of human connectedness — including some very old ones, like the face-to-face conversations, meetings and protests that drove the civil rights movement — the new technologies can be extremely useful. I’ve learned a lot from my digital life and made real friends there. But if I never turned off the screen and brought those gains to bear in the rest of my life, what use would they be? Digital networking and more traditional forms of communication aren’t mutually exclusive — they feed into each other.
Rather than the mass media of before, where audiences were grouped together based on how far radio waves reached or the distance newspaper delivery trucks drove, curators find audiences with shared interests. They filter the most relevant information and add context through their commentary and insight, like the explanations on the gallery walls of an art exhibition. The most successful curators build a following based on knowing what their audiences want.
The Web can be a morass of grossly uncivil discourse and misinformation, and it can be an accessible and inexpensive medium for community-building and political activism. The difference lies not in the technology but in the literacy — know-how is the critical difference. Lots of people have the know-how to organize demonstrations and riots, get out the vote and shut down institutions. Those who gain the know-how to transform networks into movements might gain the keys to power — for better or worse — in coming decades.
In reading all of these wonderful pieces, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences with social media. It has been roughly a year and three months since I started a Facebook group with the name “People for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Flavor”. Since then, I’ve been involved in other Facebook groups, used Twitter hashtags in conjunction with passing library advocacy news (such as #saveohiolibraries), watched the creation of an library advocacy website, marched on the State Capital, used CapWiz to generate emails to my representatives, hand written letters to government officials, and advocated to patrons at my own library for restoration of budget cuts. If someone was to ask me what out of those things works, I’d have to give an honest answer and say “It depends”.
When it comes to online advocacy, it really depends on what you are asking people to do. The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream group was rather easy: join the group! That’s one mouse button click on the interface. From there, I encouraged people to send in their flavor choices through Ben & Jerry’s flavor submission interface. People could suggest their ideas on the group’s wall. It gave any Ben & Jerry people a very easy way to gauge interest in the group: they could visit the page or check on the flavor submissions. Overall, not much was being asked of the people who participated except to join and share. There was an aspect of library advocacy attached to the group in raising awareness for library funding issues. For those who were really taken with the idea, they took the further steps of adding their own.
In contrast to the Save NJ Libraries group, it was a widely different group for its aim and purpose. There was funding, jobs, and entire library locations at risk if action was not taken. It was more than just join the group and share it; we wanted people to write, call, email, and demonstrate their support for the library. We shared information, developments, and stories playing within the local media to build morale and keep people in the loop as to how others were faring around the state.
For myself, it was wonderful to see that over 15,000 people joined the group; but in the back of my mind, I had my doubts. How many of those people are fellow librarians joining in solidarity? How many actual New Jersey residents are actively monitoring the group? How many NJ people are sharing the information to their friend? How many people in the group are contacting their elected officials? For these questions, I had no answers nor hunches; there is no way to measure it and my gut feelings did not feel reliable. While some would argue that the larger the number the higher the probability of active members, I would answer and say that probability does not translate into measurable results. It also relies on the false premise that each person who joins the group has an equal chance of taking further action. Each person who comes into the group has their own level of potential involvement; where the group makes a difference is whether they can provide the energy and engagement necessary to overcome those who have (for lack of a better term) less than median potential involvement.
In my opinion, this is what can make or break a social media campaign. It’s not about the believers, it’s about getting the fence sitters to hop on over and toss in their effort. And, from what I have experienced and read about, it’s certainly not easy. To those who organized or were activists before the arrival of the internet, this fact is nothing new; what is new is the perception that the ease of online information sharing and activity should make this easier. It does make the organizing easier, but there is still the action and energy requirements to make any campaign work. I can put something on the Facebook wall that 15,000 people should be able to see, but what I really need is for them to act. (I think there is still a strange reluctance for librarians to ask people to act on their behalf, but that notion needs its own blog post.)
At the 2010 ALA Midwinter Conference, Sara Kelly John told me a story about telling Al Gore (who was speaking at the conference) that she was running for ALA President and if he had any advice for her campaign. He replied to her with a modified Poor Richard saying: “Early to bed; early to rise; work like hell; and or-gan-ize.” Organization, as it was then and as it is now, will always be the spine of activism. I think that what will distinguish people at social media activism will be their ability to pick out which bonds are strong and which ones are weak. Their ability to recruit people, recognize the type of activist that they are (information sharers, recruiters, coaches, cheerleaders, influencers, and so forth), and utilize them in that role will be the key difference between success and failure.
For myself, I have taken each new campaign (whether small or large) and started applying these lessons. Social media is a powerful tool in the advocate toolbox, but an oversubscription to reliance on it for solving every problem is one of its pitfalls. Not every Facebook group or Twitter hashtag will get you where you want to go; but there are important lessons in their success or failure. It’s up to this generation of library advocates to treat each tool available to them equally and use them in a specific role in support of each other, all under the banner for the change or action they are striving for. The revolution may not be tweeted, but social media is an excellent tool in getting the revolution going in the first place.