This last year and a half I have had the distinct pleasure of participating in the relationship building networks we call social media (vintage depiction of Twitter in attached picture found here). My most recent experience has been on Facebook, which has proved to be my playground. Where Twitter and Google+ have been about my chosen cause of education, and learning from some of the brightest people on the planet, Facebook has been about fun.
I have relaxed. Facebook is the reason I decided to write this post. I think most people use social media to enjoy their connections, and now that I have personally experienced this joy, I understand why.
In all cases, I am convinced social media can be a great force for good. It has changed my mind about many things.
“Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.
When I first read the Malcolm Gladwell article from which this quote comes I agreed with it completely. I agreed that “real change” cannot be accomplished through the “loose ties” developed through social media. Gladwell makes clear that the “strong ties” exemplified during the sixties, in the fight for Civil Rights, dwarf the “weak ties” of social media.
My agreement with Gladwell came before my personal experience with social media. Since reading this article in October of 2010, I have had the opportunity to experience almost every form of social media. The three most significant platforms I have used are Twitter, Google+, and Facebook in that order. While none of my newfound colleagues, acquaintances, or contacts have helped me launch anything on par with the Civil Rights movement, it would be a mistake to diminish them.
There is no doubt in my mind that we are only at the beginning of what is possible with social media. For instance, the advocacy for Autism on social media platforms has the potential to change this world. In the future, we may look back on this period as a seminal moment for Autism and all disabilities. I have personally experienced countless occasions where the “weak ties” of social media, have become the “strong ties” of face to face interaction (i.e. Hacking Autism and the “I Want To Say” Documentary).
Gladwell is right today, but I am quite certain he won’t be right tomorrow, which is quite fine since he is right a good bit of the time.
Why am I bullish on social media? Why do I believe it can become a transformative force for good?
- Twitter Connects – you can connect to anyone on the planet through Twitter. Twitter does this better than all other social media.
- Google+ Educates – the depth of insight, information, and education on Google+ is stunning. This is a serious group (except for cats?)
- Facebook Reunites – family, friends, and everyone we know face to face can come back together on Facebook
I have not mentioned LinkedIn or Pinterest, which are fascinating tools as well, but suffice to say the 3 listed above hold incredible potential for influence. Using these three tools almost anyone can create “weak ties” everywhere, and through “meet ups” develop “strong ties”. Additionally, using Facebook a person can renew “old ties” and make them “strong” again.
In short, those who effectively use social media can change the world if they are willing to turn their “weak ties” into “strong ties”. This will take work, but if the cause is worthy, it will happen. Autism is just one of the many causes which may prove the truth of my statement.
Face to Face trumps Facebook
So one crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remembered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.
One thing we can learn from Gladwell is how to make the ‘weak ties” of social media “strong”. He teaches us the necessity of face to face relationships
Knowing trumps Following
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.
“Strong ties” require relationships where we truly know each other. The Greensboro Four knew each other…quite well. Turning followers into genuine friends can and will produce powerful changes in the world of the future.
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 highrisk activism.
I have experienced all the benefits referred to above. In my view, they can be summed up by one word, “education”. The education received when we participate in the diverse, deep, and expert conversations found in social media expands the borders of our minds. We become less polarized and more aware. Education like this changes things. It may not happen overnight, but it does happen. This is real influence, which will become as powerful as the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, when the right cause comes along.
I am grateful to all my social media contacts, relationships, and friendships. By no means do I consider myself an expert, in fact I don’t think I am even very good. What I do believe is my understanding of the world has been made more complete by the experience. Additionally, I am confident that my causes of education, Autism, and using technology to overcome human limits will benefit because of my involvement. If even one additional life is changed because of my involvement with social media, then it will have been worth it.