There’s another debate swirling about the internet; this time it’s regarding social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and how important they are to social activism.

The debate’s trigger, in this case, was an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker in which he argues social networks increase activism only by lowering the threshold for participation.  As opposed to the close friendships formed by the American civil rights movement, the weak ties created by social networking sites are a waste of resources. At best, Gladwell argues, they’re only good for tasks like helping “Wall Streeters” retrieve cell-phones stolen by teenaged girls.

Needless to say, the article proved controversial. Twitter founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone responded promptly, calling Gladwell’s article “laughable.” Others, notably in the New York Times, had more productive responses.

If there’s something that can be extracted from Gladwell’s article, it’s that Twitter and Facebook are just tools. Their effectiveness depends on the humans using them, and even good use doesn’t  guarantee success. In Iran, the twitter-casted Green Movement proved unable to overcome the military might and organization of the Revolutionary Guard. Moldova’s 2009 unrest, which included the use of Facebook and other social networking sites to organize, resulted in rioting and reprisals that left the nation fractured. Twittering is no match for the barrel of a gun. Nor is it a guarantee against anarchy.

What Gladwell misses, however, is that strong and weak ties aren’t mutually exclusive; they bolster one another.

As has been mentioned, the rights movement didn’t deconstruct Jim Crow on guts and grit alone. Activists had help from a powerful new technology: the television, which made the brutality and hypocrisy undergirding Jim Crow embarrassingly public. It was television, and the media coverage starting with the 1964 Freedom Summer murders, that helped provide the public support President Lyndon B. Johnson needed to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In many ways, social networking sites have now supplanted TV  as the go to source for subversive information. During the 2009 Iranian protests, networking sites circumvented the press blackout and distributed news that directly challenged the regime’s version of events. It was social networks that spread footage of protesters on the march and of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death—an event that might have otherwise gone unnoticed in a pre-YouTube age.

So perhaps the revolution won’t be hasn’t been tweeted, yet. Nonetheless, sites like Twitter, when used properly, are a powerful resource; they act like signposts, engaging people who might not otherwise care and connecting those who’d normally lack the means to contribute. A multitude of weakly tied individuals, when combined with a concerted, well organized movement, can prove especially potent, as in the case of Barrack Obama’s presidential  campaign.

A social networking site, therefore, has its uses. But it’s a matter of using that resource in conjunction with others that gets results, whether that be for a revolution or just a humble campaign to save the local community garden.

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