What Gladwell Gets Wrong: The Real Problem is Scale Mismatch (Plus, Weak and Strong Ties are Complementary and Supportive)

Malcolm Gladwell has written an interesting piece in the New Yorker, arguing that real social change occurs when strong, rather than weak-tie networks, organize hierarchically, rather than in a de-centralized network structure. His example contrasts the lunch-counter protests in Greensboro, North Carolina in the sixties with the low-stakes activism through social media. While he makes many valid points, his key argument is misguided.

I will make two main points in this post. One, the key issue facing activists who wish for real social change is the mismatch between the scale of our problems (global) and the natural scale of our sociality (local). This is a profound problem and more, not less, social media is almost certainly a key element of any solution. Second, the relationship between weak and strong ties is one of complementarity and support, not one of opposition. Gladwell has written about weak and strong ties before and continues a tradition of contrasting them as ontological opposites, somehow opposing and displacing each other. That is a widespread conceptual error and rests upon an inadequate understanding of these concepts. Large pools of weaker ties are crucial to being able to build robust networks of stronger ties – and Internet use is a key to this process.

Scale of Our Problems (Global) versus the Scale of our Sociality (Local) and Social Movements

The main problems facing humanity today are climate change, resource depletion, economic devastation, environmental destruction and for those unfortunate to be living in particular regions of the world, war, epidemics, and dire poverty. (Most of the last group is composed of people with very few resources and no influence, and at the mercy of larger powers, so let me join the world in callously and shamefully ignoring their plight for the moment).

But all the main problems in the first group are global in scale and just cannot be affected at the local level. Arguing about how to organize lunch-counter sit-ins reminds me of the generals fighting the last war. Want to change the environmental laws in your city council so your town recycles better? Knock yourself out (I’m all for it) but that will hardly make a dent with the global climate trainwreck that is fast headed our way. Want to force corporations in your state to make sure their employees aren’t so poor that they are on Medicaid and foodstamps, i.e. effectively subsidized by the regular taxpayers? Sure, and make sure to smile when you wave bye-bye to them as they leave for a more favorable state or country. The race-to-the-bottom structure that has been enacted through decades of neoliberal policies has effectively freed the powerful from constraints at the local level. The problem isn’t we can’t organize lunch-counter sit-ins or high-risk actions; the problem is they don’t matter much. Our sociality tends to be local the scale of the action required to confront today’s problems is global.

To effectively deal with the issue of climate change as a real solution requires equity and enforcement at the global scale – billions of people, hundreds of nations. (Thus, this is a multi-level problem). Currently, there is no organization with reach, power or jurisdiction to effectively address this issue. The only globally-organized actors are large and powerful interests — corporations and nation-states. To make these powerful actors behave in a sustainable manner would require gutting all their alternatives and completely encircling them so that they cannot escape from citizen mandates.

No, we need to be able to tell them, you cannot pollute in China, or pay your workers a pittance in Indonesia, or leave them without health insurance in the United States, or move your factories, and your monies, and your capital, and your infrastructure at will, from one end of the globe to the other, as if the trail of misery and destruction you leave behind is of no consequence. We need to make it consequential for them everywhere, all the time, simultaneously.

Lunch-counter sit-ins in a few places? Even at the national scale? Maybe we’ll make a few powerful executives smile with bemusement. What we need is simultaneous action for citizen-powered mandates on state and corporate conduct. That should wipe a few grins off smug faces. Does anyone imagine we can organize something on that global scale without the Internet? Let me know.

Now, I agree with Gladwell on many of his points about inflating the importance of Twitter, say, in Iran, and Morozov is absolutely correct that this cuts both ways: increased technology also brings increased surveillance capacity. And I hate the example in Clay Shirky’s book about the Wall Street employee who leverages his social network to hunt down a teenager who stole a friend’s stupid expensive stupid shiny stupid new phone (even though he was in the right, the idea of people so powerful spending so much time and effort –-and mobilizing tens of thousands of people at some point– to make the police chase down a misguided teenager and arrest her for such a petty crime makes my skin crawl).

That said, Shirky is absolutely right in both of his latest books. The Internet is the key to our collective action problem -– it’s the only tool that lowers the barriers for vast numbers of ordinary people to coordinate, motivate and engage in consequential action. If, one day, we manage to organize the equivalent of lunch-counter sit-ins simultaneously in one hundred countries, you know it will be organized online. You might go with your close friends, or you might go with strangers and find yourself having become close friends.

Weak versus Strong Ties

Which brings me to the fact that strong versus weak ties should not be seen as opposites but rather as supporting and complementary dynamics. One key point is that Internet bolsters strong ties directly and indirectly. Directly, because Internet allows for more frequent, trivial “ambient” communication and that is the bedrock of strong-tie formation. All those tweets about what you had for breakfast that everyone makes fun of? A lot of research shows that if you record ordinary people’s conversations with their close friends and family and you will find that this is exactly what they do – talk about the mundane rhythms of life. Current structures of suburbia, distant homes, moving for jobs, smaller families, etc. all make it harder to engage in that kind of daily interaction – and weaken our communities. The Internet is the opposite of these processes: suburbs took us away from other people and locked us into houses; the Internet opens a door from the house into potentially shared places.

The concept of weak versus strong ties that Gladwell uses often originates from a seminal paper Mark Granovetter, “Strength of Weak Ties.” (I’m going to go technical briefly here.) In this wonderful study, Granovetter isn’t interested in tie-strength per se but at a particular network structure called “bridge ties” — a connection between two internally dense networks that would otherwise be unconnected save for that bridging tie. Presumably because complete data about the structure of people’s social networks was very difficult to obtain, Granovetter suggested using weak ties as a proxy for bridges.

In this conceptualization, the benefit of weak ties is not that they were weak per se, but rather that the tie network of a weak tie is presumed to be less likely to overlap with one’s own tie network and thus more likely to have access to differential resources and information. There are two further assumptions to make this work: strong ties are likely to already know each other (and thus be part of a densely connected network) and strong-tie alters are also more likely to be similar to ego in terms of resources and attributes due to homophily, similarity of origin, or convergent evolution. (I’ll perhaps blog later; both of these assumptions, technically called “open triads” and homophily of strong-ties is likely much weaker in today’s world).

It’s important to note that whether or not a tie is a bridge is dichotomous. Tie-strength, on the other hand, is continuous (and dynamic as ties vary over time in strength). Granovetter, and many others after him, have divided ties into weak and strong by artificially drawing lines. However, the key contrast was, and remains, between bridge and non-bridge ties; conflating them as weak and strong ties and then contrasting them as if they were direct opposites is conceptually incorrect. In reality, people’s ties range from very strong to very weak. Strong-ties become weak over time and vice-versa. Weak ties and strong ties are not ontological opposites.

Internet as a Key Resource for Tie-Formation

Which brings me to my final point; Given the decline of importance of place and family in providing people with strong ties (one’s very close ties used to be immediate family, kin, neighbors, etc), where do you think people will turn to if they are to regenerate robust communities composed of strongly-connected individuals? Their weaker ties. All those Facebook friends that Gladwell and others take turns making fun of? That is exactly where most people can potentially draw stronger ties. Tweets/discussions about lunch and naps and status updates about dates and breakups? Bedrock of sociality and of social networks of stronger and weaker ties. Do we really think that strong communities spend their time discussing the finer points of flexible specialization in the labor process under post-Fordism? Research shows that adding online connectivity to an otherwise face-to-face space like a neighborhood increases the general level of bonding because it increases the channels of communication (See work by Keith Hampton, Barry Wellman or Gustavo Mesch, among others). (Think of a neighborhood mailing list – it lets neighbors connect even though they may hardly have time to get together regularly given long-commutes and other responsibilities – Internet allows asynchronous, rich communication freed from requirements of coordinating time and place).

Consequently, pools of weaker ties, organized around shared affinities and interests, will likely become most people’s source for closer friendships. As we introduce people in our increasingly geographically-dispersed networks to each other, we can recreate the denser, closely-knit communities of mutual-interdependence that do indeed give rise to social movement. Internet and social media will clearly be a key in this process because going back to place-based ties is not only not possible, and more importantly, inadequate, for rising up to meet the global, multi-level, complex problems we as all of humanity face today.

New movements that can bring about global social change will still require people who interact with each other regularly, and trust and depend on each other in somewhat dense networks. Or only hope is if those networks span the globe in a tightly-knit, broad web of activity, interaction, personalization. Real change will come only if we can make friends we care about everywhere and we make bridge ties that cover the world in a web of common humanity that is bigger and more powerful than a handful of corporations and the corrupt, self-perpetuating class of politicians.

So, maybe seeing a tweet about what an war orphan in Afghanistan had for breakfast (nothing), what a worker in a sweatshop in China had for lunch (nothing because there is no lunch break), or where a survivor of one of the increasing numbers of large-scale climate events like massive floods is sleeping tonight (on a wet piece of plastic) interspersed into our daily rhythms of communication with our local friends and communities is exactly what we need to organize us into the “hive mind” that everyone is so afraid of when in reality, what is destroying our opportunities for individuality and creativity, subverting us from realizing our human potential is not that we are tweeting about trivialities, but that the governance of our planet has been taken away from us.

I say, bring on the hive mind, please let it be global in scale as nothing less will do, and let Facebook and Twitter lead the way.

40 thoughts on “What Gladwell Gets Wrong: The Real Problem is Scale Mismatch (Plus, Weak and Strong Ties are Complementary and Supportive)

  1. Amin

    Great post. I really enjoyed your discussion of strength-of-ties.

    I thought Gladwell also missed the mark on his blanket assumption that all social media worked the same. He doesn’t really mention the positive organizational effect of SMS during the Iranian election protests, nor does he give any weight to the fact that Twitter helped create an international climate of pressure on the Iranian government that hadn’t been present before the protests.

  2. Annelies

    Great post, and I agree with Amin about the ways in which Gladwell gets Iran/Twitter wrong.

    Those weak ties on Twitter feeds and blogs are telling the hidden story of Mexico’s drug wars http://bit.ly/ci9Bav — neither bold activism nor easy slacktivism, but necessary when the regular media is muzzled. Finding and using another channel for protest is an important method that should be in everyone’s repertoire.

    Furthermore, Gladwell also conflates social networks with social *media* networks. The latter provides a platform for the former. For some reason, he seems to think that the network that coordinated the sit-ins and the boycotts was more real (valid?) than the one that kept the Iranian protests in the public eye in the West. They had far more centralized organization (and were using telephones instead of Twitter), but that is still a network.

    Which brings me to my personal pet peeve: out of all the scholars in international relations, he has to quote ones that are using the word “network” when what they are doing isn’t network analysis. *sigh*

  3. Alan Sloane

    Interesting reading – as was the Gladwell article, thank you.

    Just two comments/quibbles:
    (i) While I agree that Granovetter’s argument is really about bridging, rather than strength of ties, I don’t think bridging is dichotomous in the case of any real empirical data any more than strong/weak is;
    (ii) The reference (in the Gladwell article) to the Civil Rights struggle, reminded me that there is a classic SNA-oriented study on that topic – Doug McAdams “Freedom Summer” (http://www.amazon.com/Freedom-Summer-Doug-McAdam/dp/0195064720 – also related papers by McAdam, and with Roberto Fernandez and Roger Gould e.g. http://files.meetup.com/160880/High-risk%20activism.pdf, http://www.springerlink.com/content/n85509443k4k4r25/).
    What I take from his arguments is that there is a crucial inflection between low-commitment activism, what you might call “sympathy”, and high-risk activism (to life, livelihood etc.), and that the probability that a person will cross that line is connected to the strength and multiplexity of their ties. To put it another way, ties mediated through the internet and similar non-proximate interaction may inform and unite a bunch of passive sympathizers, but may not be enough to mobilize action robust enough to challenge entrenched power.

  4. Nicolas Diaz

    Let’s use that example, Twitter feeds and the mexican “drug wars”. You can say that most of the drug cartel attacks in my city, Monterrey, have appeared on Twitter first. But, also, that Monterrey citizens tweet about drug cartel attacks everytime they hear an electrical transformer exploding, firecrackers, a car crash or any other loud noise. I live in the downtown area, and everytime I see fireworks coming out of a church or the civic center, I just have to wait a few seconds before people tweets “Strange explosions in downtown area of Monterrey! Don’t go there! It’s dangerous!”

    I agree with Zeynep, any contemporary significant movement has to be global, but also with Gladwell: if you don’t have some clear hierarchy and responsability, information and networks are useless.

  5. joll

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. I was directed to this site by a friend of mine, and really enjoyed it. I agree Gladwell unnecessarily pits strong against weak ties as if they were totally separate. I agree that strong and weak ties are complementary and that we need both to effect change. But I don’t think the first and third points are pertinent to the main points made in Gladwell’s New Yorker article.

    One of the points Gladwell makes concerns what weak ties (alone) can do v. what strong ties (alone) can do (I paraphrased “alone” because I’ve already mentioned how Gladwell pits one against each other). My reading tells me that he is talking about the limits of what, say, facebook activism can do. Yes, it can address global issues by accentuating their salience and creating a global conscience against certain policies. But online activism based on weak ties can hardly effect change alone. It’s not because people don’t know what the answers are that positive change doesn’t occur as often as we want, but more because of the structure of power that inhibits such change. The struggle has to be made at the point of power, in the face-to-face relations which often require strong commitment and risk-taking. Such was what happened during the civil rights movement in the U.S., in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, in the activism of the Solidarity Union in Poland, and numerous other instances of struggle that actually effected meaningful change. The kind of activism you cite (e.g., climate change, resource depletion, etc.) seems no more effective than demonstrations that follow pre-planned routes in a city under police guidance–you speak out what you think, the powers that be see it as a demonstration of the superiority of plural democracy, and that’s about it. When social movements are so routinized and contained and when they lose their capacity to disrupt, there is little power in them. Weak ties created via facebook and twitter may be effective tools for disseminating ideas and diffusing tactics, but it’ll take actual people in the actual site of struggle to make an actual movement. This is directly tied to the second point that the previous commenter has made, and I think this was in part what Gladwell was trying to say.

    Oh, one more on your first point: I was scratching my head when I was reading about your juxtaposition of the global scale of our problems versus the local scale of our sociality. Thanks to the technological and communicative revolutions, we are connected to people in the most remote part of the world and get near-instantaneous access to happenings all around the world as they take place. And our sociality is local? Come on! This seems more 19th century, when capitalism was spreading globally while people’s lives were confined within certain localities.

    Lastly, I felt as though you were making a huge leap with your last point. I agree and am pretty aware of the researches that have demonstrated that “adding online connectivity to an otherwise face-to-face space like a neighborhood increases the general level of bonding because it increases the channels of communication.” To my best knowledge, and I’m sure you know better than I do, most research on this issue has shown that online connectivity enhances, not replace, face-to-face interaction. In other words, weak ties tend to strengthen strong ties; they seldom substitute strong ties. The implication is that you need the existence of strong ties in order for weak ties to function in meaningful ways in facilitating a social movement. I think this stresses the importance of strong ties and the facilitating role of weak ties in the maintenance of strong ties (hence, complementarity). Yes, I am inclined to agree that “pools of weaker ties, organized around shared affinities and interests, will likely become most people’s source for closer friendships” if (and only IF) strong ties are in a decline as you assume. But from what I have seen I can’t agree that there is a “decline of importance of place and family in providing people with strong ties (one’s very close ties used to be immediate family, kin, neighbors, etc).” If you have evidence on this, I’d be more than happy to reconsider my position.

  6. zeynep Post author

    What a great discussion! I’ll try to respond to some of the points.

    @Amin — it’s certainly true that one of the key functions of social media is to get the word out. As the cases of Iran and Burma show, that is not always sufficient. But I don’t see how one can argue that this is not important.

    @Annelies — the conflation of online social networks (or social media networks) and social networks is so rampant that I don’t know if one should laugh and cry. Also, networks come in varieties and decentralized networks are just as much networks as hierarchical ones. I think Gladwell’s point is that a certain level of hierarchy can be conducive to a successful movement. Perhaps, to a degree, depends — but at a global scale? Probably not. But, I do agree with the point that it is hard to have a movement without goals and goals require some degree of reconciliation among participants which requires some way of defining that which one has reconciled to, which doesn’t always happen with completely flat/decentralized networks. Big, thorny issue for social movements.

    @Allan Sloane: (i) I completely agree that network overlap would be a better measure for the kind of questions Granovetter was looking at (transmission effects such as job searches) and network overlap, too, is a continuum.
    (ii) My understanding is that Doug McAdam’s study shows that for lower-risk actions like lunch counter sit-ins (and somewhat contrary what Gladwell says, lunch counter sit-ins were among the lower risk tactics in those days compared to the stuff that got you killed) spread through information networks and news media — and were predicted not by strength of ties but by the number of black college students. If you learned of the idea, you could get together with a few people and just do it. It’s the much riskier tactic of freedom rides that required much stronger ties — indeed, people were killed in those actions. I don’t agree that social change only comes through the latter (high risk tactics); sometimes yes, sometimes, no, and often it’s a combination that gets things going.

    @Nicolas Diaz: Twitter indeed has turned out to be a great tool for information diffusion at the local level. The situation with the drug wars that @Annelies is referring to sounds pretty horrible for all. There are no easy answers.

    @Joll: I think the current, most urgent problems are not of the nature that you can confront a single-state — like the case in apartheid in South Africa or Solidarity in Poland. I am not saying nation-state level struggles don’t exist or aren’t important. However, even of those, the most important ones can’t be won at the level of the nation-state. You can organize your big union like Solidarity and then capital just moves, *poof*.

    On locality: most people one cares about are likely people they interacted fairly often, at least some point in their life. Such ties tend to originate from some level of geographical overlap even if they move away at some point. You are less likely to have a close friend you never met in a country you’ve never been. Yes, this is not the 19th century but we still live in a human scale — you only move around so much in a day. The challenge is to make our lives interact at a global scale in a way that a global social movement of some sort can emerge to meet the global challenges. I don’t really have an answer in my back pocket but I think social media can be a key component of overcoming the collective action problem inherent in confronting multi-level, complex global challenges.

    There does appear to be a decline in strong ties (see big debate in sociology journals including McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew E. Brashears. 2006. “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades.” American Sociological Review 71:353-375. — by the way, I don’t completely agree with the claim in this paper that this decline might be partially due to the Internet or look at Keith Hampton’s most recent work, Hampton, Keith. 2009. “Social Isolation and New Technology: How the Internet and Mobile Phones Impact Americans’ Social Networks.” ). You might also want to look at Barry Wellman’s papers on Networked Individualism.

    People still turn to kin and family for close ties but many ties that used to automatically strong can no longer be counted upon to be so — many people are estranged or in little contact, say, with their siblings or cousins just because they don’t feel a need to be close .It used to be that those were entrenched, almost automatic strong ties but they are increasingly seen as optional and only strong if there is an affirmative reason. This is all tied to rise of individualism, ideas of self-fulfillment, what it means to have an authentic self, etc.

    1. gk

      The point about risk is that it is, by definition, uncertain and contingent. Whether a lunch counter sit-in will prove to be low or high risk is not a foregone conclusion. The riskiness of any action evolves in relation to the responses it evokes… in the context of highly antagonistic racism, even the most innocuous of protests may prove to be highly risky.

      And risk isn’t confined to the side of activists. It is distributed – networked? – throughout situations of contention, and encompasses bystanders as well as antagonists. Strategies of contention, whether consciously or not, entail struggles around the distribution and intesity of risk.

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  8. simon billing

    As a lowly adman I feel extraordinarily under qualified to be commenting on such an erudite blog.

    There’s been a good deal of harrumphing about Gladwell’s New Yorker piece but I think his essential point is over-looked in the desire to maintain the internet’s image as a force for good and for positive social change.

    His fundamental point is not that social media/networks are irrelevant to real activism but that their influence is often overstated. So that accelerated awareness of an issue, and/or signing up to a facebook page, adding a twibbon or sending a donation to a relief fund tends to be mislabeled activism. Participating in high risk activities to further a cause will be motivated by more than just awareness, and more often than not will involve some degree of personal involvement in the issue.

  9. Jae Yeon KIM

    A great posting on the how Internet enables the citizens around the world to cooperate in a grand large scale than never before. Also, I agreed with your points that indicating Galdwell misled in terms of his interpretation of the strong/weak ties.

    In addition, the obvious popularity of Meetup.com supports you idea that sometimes the weak times becomes strong when it is appropriately ICT-mediated. (as now the user behavior expands not only from accessing to the Internet by desktop but also to checking the alerts from their smartphones or the other portable digital devises.)

    However, there are some concerns I would like to raise in regard with this wonderful piece of blog posting.

    Firstly, I think we need to think of whether the Net has become more commercial or civic. It’s challenging as it asks ourselves we can still hold the concept and title like netiziens as relevant in today’s surging influence on the commercial controls of BITS. I am not opposite to it, but worrying the way it can change the basic characteristics of the Net like abolishing the net neutrality and so forth.

    Secondly, we need to think of the global divide on the web. Unlike the Linux project and Wikipedia project to make the global protest happen via the web we need much more sophisticated dialogue happening between the countries, languages, and cultures. In other words, to make it REALLY happen we need to have tools and aids to overcome those barriers. Even though there is a fantastic project like global voice but that is still not known much for example in Seoul where I am residing in.

    Lastly, the companies and nation-states are not only waiting for the change we are looking forward to happen but think of any means to stop and control for their purposes.

    So, in a conclusion, the social reality should be taken into our considerations as well. But regardless of all those mentions, basically, I think you are right that if we all stand up then it is the only case can be done by the Net.


  10. N. Miller

    Re: “The main problems facing humanity today are climate change, resource depletion, economic devastation, environmental destruction and for those unfortunate to be living in particular regions of the world, war, epidemics, and dire poverty.”

    Can’t agree with that. You’ve left out repression of a person’s fundamental right to autonomy with regard to her body, identity, beliefs, and choice of associates (among other things). This is an enormous problem. You could solve (hypothetically) climate change and resource, economic and environmental devastation, but if, for example, you live in a society that condones selling you to an old man and/or doesn’t recognize rape as a crime, or you are a slave, or imprisoned for being homosexual, you’ve got misery. The oppression of women in particular is the starting point for a number of seemingly-unrelated problems, including epidemics and poverty.

    I would also add violence to the list. Violence in all its forms creates misery all over the globe. Huge problem.

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  13. Guillermo Quijano

    I would like to ask your permission to publish a translation of this post in spanish in a blog. Of course, if you agree I will make the proper attribution, linking and reference to your blog and this post. Gladwell’s article had a lot of republishing in newspapers and blogs in my country but none of it’s replies. As it is a very important debate and yours is to my eyes a very relevant contribution i think it would make a difference.
    Greetings from Argentina.

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  18. John O

    Interesting post, but I have to say that you should reflect more over why it makes your “skin crawl” that people actually wanted to help the person that lost the Sidekick. In the real world material possesions are important to people and you should respect that. That comment was just so arrogant that it..well..made MY skin crawl. If we anthropologists and sociologists really want to embrace the diversity of humanity, we should not get upset because people have different values from ourselves. Get over it and you might just discover something interesting about the world that you didn’t notice before. Other than that: great post. Thank you 🙂

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  24. Alan

    “Most of the last group is composed of people with very
    few resources and no influence, and at the mercy of
    larger powers, so let me join the world in callously and
    shamefully ignoring their plight for the moment”

    I love authors who make me laugh literally out loud,
    as you just did. Just had to acknowledge that.

    PS: pedantry dept: your original was punctuated
    poorly; I corrected this in the quote above.

  25. Alan

    N. Miller wrote:
    “Can’t agree with that. You’ve left out repression of a person’s
    fundamental right to autonomy with regard to her body, identity,
    beliefs, and choice of associates…..”

    OK. Zeynep could have (and maybe should have) written this, instead:

    “The main existential problems facing humanity today are
    climate change, resource depletion, economic devastation,
    environmental destruction…”

    I am sure that Zeynep is adequately sensitive to matters of civil and
    human rights. But the existential trump cards that she mentions
    really are trump cards, in the big picture. Unless we mitigate them,
    most aggressively, we’ll soon be kissing goodbye our most-cherished
    liberal notions. First things first, which is not to say that second things
    are unimportant.

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