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Why Some Ties Are Better Than Others (and I’m Not Talking About Neckwear)

Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating article in the current New Yorker. “Small Change: Why the revolution won’t be tweeted” discusses, among other things, ways the personal ties we have dictate the relative success of a revolution (or if it is even possible).

Gladwell uses as a benchmark the Woolworth lunch-counter sit-in in 1960. His thesis begins when he points out that the four college students who staged the sit-in were friends, dorm-mates at North Carolina A&T, a black college in Greensboro. Because they were friends who had had long discussions about race matters, Gladwell cited their “strong ties.”

Gladwell also posits that when change involves high risk (as the Greensboro sit-in and further sit-ins did), the key is for people (activists) to have strong ties. He discusses at length the role of strong ties in the years-long civil rights movement.

He contrasted these strong ties with the “weak ties” of today’s social media, in particular Twitter and Facebook. One of the episodes he notes is the use of social media to find a bone marrow donor for a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. The effort resulted in 25,000 people being added to the bone marrow database. There was participation (adding your name to a database), but was there real involvement? Indeed, Gladwell says of this and other calls to donate (e.g., to various Darfur funds):

“…Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.”

Gladwell’s treatment of the phenomena of “strong ties” and “weak ties” and their role in the caliber of change (or revolution) is thought provoking. It made me think about what kind of “revolution” I would rather be involved in:

  • a revolution that is high-risk, undertaken with people with whom I have strong ties, and that results ultimately in Large Change; or
  • one that is low risk, undertaken with uncountable people with whom I have weak ties, and that results in Small Change.

Something tells me that the former is much more satisfying than the latter.

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