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The Importance of Strong Ties in Social Activism

Malcom Gladwell’s article “Small Change” is about the way social media has effected social justice movements and rallies worldwide. Galdwell explains how he believes that despite the recent claims of social media “reinventing” social activism, it really has no effect on the participation rates of activists. To show this, he traces the spread of the Greensbro Diner protest of 1960 and describes how word of the sit-ins spread through a network of people without the help of any form of social media. He critiques Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody,” a well-respected book about how social media is helping people organize, enhance, and spread word of injustice. Galdwell refutes Shirky’s hypothesis by adding a layer to social media’s networking abilities. Social media sites help form and maintain weak social ties, but not strong ties. Strong ties are required for recruitment of high-risk activities like dangerous social activism. Galdwell brings this back in the context of Greensbro Diner, and states that social media wouldn’t have effected the growth of this movement, because the people who joined the protests were recruited by their family members and close friends. They would not have put their lives on the line for strangers in the way they did for the close people who inspired them to face violent police and outraged white supremacist groups. Gladwell concludes his argument by explaining how we should not over estimate the power of social media in our new world, because the most important actions are still spread through strong ties.

In our networks class we discussed the spread of new products through networks, which can be related to the rallying of activists during social justice movements. A cascade of people changing products often stops at the intersections of two tight knit clusters, or at weak ties that connect two groups. They specifically stop spreading when the density of the cluster is greater than the threshold of nodes’ decisions to change to the new product. The threshold is calculated by the values of each product and describes how many ties a node must have to people using that product for it to be worth while to switch to. This relates directly to Gladwell’s explanation of social media and activism because the threshold can measure how “risky” product change is. Others joined the sit-ins because people in their personal “clusters” asked them to participate, not through outside groups asking them to join the rally. When people from tight knit clusters ask a friend to join a rally or switch to a new product, it is easier to pass the threshold. This is because, just as Gladwell explained in his article and as we discussed in class, people participate in high risk situations because of strong ties, not weak ties.


Gladwell (2010) Small Change-2699e95 


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