The ‘weak ties’ of social networking

Mark Sayers has posted an excellent (or molte bene to use his parlance) reflection on the Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article mentioned in my previous post:

“This molto bene article from Malcolm Gladwell … has solidified a lot themes that I have been talking about on this blog for ages. Gladwell speaks about the relative weakness of social networking as a tool of social change versus the tied and tested methods of believing in something passionately and being really organised. Despite reading Clay Shirkey’s Here Comes Everybody and getting slightly excited, I have had this funny feeling for a while that what we are seeing a lot of hype over ways of reaching people with a lot of breadth but not a whole lot of depth.

If you haven’t yet read Here Comes Everybody then I would still recommend that you do – but must admit, as Sayers does, that Gladwell’s observations definitely throws new fuel on to the discussion about the weakness of wide but shallow social networks over ‘face-to-face’ relationships.

As Sayers observes:

“What loose, organic networks provide is breadth, a scope for communicating information across a broad spectrum of people. But as we all know the more invites you get on facebook the more you ignore them, the larger and looser the network the less effective it becomes. Real social change as Gladwell remarks is borne out of a deep commitment to the cause, and thus a deep connected engagement, something facebook activism, and ‘come as you are’ networks don’t provide.”

The contrast in both articles, therefore, is between ‘strong tie’ and ‘weak tie’ relationships, and, as Gladwell so eloquently illustrates, high-risk activism that catalyses real change is a “strong tie phenomenon” that is unlikely to appear through social networking:

“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 …. 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 marvelous 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.”

Gladwell also makes the observation that high-risk activists are often organised hierarchically, which is not what social media is about:

“Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.”

This doesn’t mean that loose networks are bad, just that they won’t, in Gladwell’s opinion, produce the type of relationships that facilitate hard social change:

“There are many things … that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. 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? ….

The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change – if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash – or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy….”

As he concludes his article, Gladwell makes the observation that social networks are, ultimately:

“….a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

This makes sense, and must be taken into account, but is not necessarily all bad.  However, it does highlight the limits of social media in our contemporary culture.

Sayers takes this a step further and puts it into a discipleship context:

“What Gladwell is saying is that ultimately the methods of creating social change has not really changed that much. Commitment to a cause is infectious, but it is hard to catch across a computer screen or at a large event. It is caught in person. Therefore at the end of the day it is about discipling others …. Jesus was born into a culture where the apprenticing model of the Rabbis was normative …. Jesus’ statement that his followers must hate their families’ in order to be his disciples, so deeply shocking to our modern sensibilities, was actually not so shocking to Jesus hearers because it was a well know Rabbinical saying, underlying the importance of apprenticing yourself to a spiritual guide. Thus the challenge for us is to meld all of the tools which give us such breadth, with a challenge to go deeper. Screens – both on our laptops, iphones and stages can transfer important information. But the task of discipleship, of creating passionate followers prepared to die for a cause can only happen face to face.”

Ultimately, discipleship must be done face-to-face – and to be most effective, inevitably, on a one-to-one basis or in small groups of two or three – but the challenge is how to do this and still take advantage of the strengths of social media, primarily the easy transfer of information and ideas, and the fueling of innovation through collaboration with others outside of your normal circle of contacts.  Somewhere there must be a ‘sweet spot’ – to use Brafman and Beckstrom’s parlance – a place of best advantage between a centralised hierarchy and totally decentralised social network – where our discipleship focus is a hybrid of face-to-face apprenticing backed up and enhanced through networking with other disciples – both locally and across the global church.

The problem for me comes about when we put the responsibility for ‘discipleship’ exclusively in the hands of a local church hierarchy.  So often in such a situation ‘discipleship’ ends up becoming programme driven, legalistic and overly contrived rather than Jesus focussed, organic and natural.

Ultimately, the discipling of others must be driven from a grass roots change in the life of a church body – rather than a leadership directive – and that requires catalysts – people who have the passion and motivation to make change happen through influencing and encouraging others into action.

And as for me, my passion to disciple others, as a ‘catalyst’ in my home church, has been revived over the last eighteen months primarily as a result of my contact with key influencers, such as Mark Sayers, Alan Hirsch and Neil Cole – often through the use of social media.  The ties might be weak, but the influences, trust me, are strong!

Read Mark Sayers’ full article here.

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