Poor Malcolm Gladwell. The world famous author of Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers just unleashed the fury of the Twittersphere by writing a New Yorker piece called “Small Change: why the revolution will not be tweeted” where he makes the case that online social networks like Twitter and Facebook aren’t how real social change happens.
I actually think Gladwell raises some important issues that the online activist community needs to take to heart if it wants to create real change in the world. The weak-tie connections we build on Twitter and Facebook are great for asking small favors like signing online petitions. Connections are not relationships and not all connections require relationships to have impact; sometimes real change does happen when you get enough of these small actions. But not all of the world’s problems get solved that way. Sometimes social change requires heavy lifting and sometimes it exposes you to take real risks. In these situations the people you will find by your side are the people with strong ties – not just to you but to the issue you both care about. That is the core of Gladwell’s inconvenient message, and even if he does overstate the case, it is a message that should not be dismissed.
What is missing is a bridge; a bridge between the online social networks and the ways organizations deepen their engagement with individuals.
When it comes to social change, the problem with online social networking tools has less to do with the tools themselves – and more to do with how organizations fail to connect their social network organizing with their efforts to deepen their relationships with people. Facebook is an excellent medium for using our social ties to expose people to new issues. By “liking” something on Facebook or re-tweeting something on Twitter, I tell my friends and followers “hey, I’m watching this issue – I care about it” and doing that in a networked public forum makes it easy to spread.
That’s the easy part though. The hard part is connecting that interest back to someplace where a person can go deep – someplace where they can build a deep connection with a mission and with others who share that same passion.
Organizations that excel at engagement have strong systems and processes in place for developing their weak ties into strong ties. Constituent relationship management (CRM) databases are the core of these systems and you need good strategy and process to make the most of these systems. The goal of these strategies, systems and processes is a healthy mix, or portfolio, of people at various levels of engagement. What defines “a healthy mix” depends on the social change goals of the organization, but as a general rule you don’t want everyone in your base to be a strong-tie connection. These deeper relationships take a lot of resources to maintain – and it’s important to have a solid base of weak ties to draw from even if just to offset the natural attrition of your strong-ties over time.
This healthy mix of weak-tie and strong-tie connections and the processes for moving people from the former to the latter is the essence of the Engagement Pyramid and it’s what Gladwell is missing in his critique of social networking tools. Yes, you need strong-ties to do certain types of heavy social change lifting. But those deep relationships don’t just appear magically out of thin air. They need to be cultivated over time with thoughtful and deliberate organizational effort and they need to be fed by influxes of new people, which is precisely where online social networks like Twitter and Facebook can play an important role.
There are thorny issues that still remain to be solved in integrating the tools of online organizing with the tools of relationship management. Out of a concern for their users’ privacy and in order to protect themselves from competitors, services like Twitter and Facebook have made it extremely difficult to connect their data to organizational CRM databases and other engagement systems. There are projects underway to open up social network technologies, but the incumbents have little vested interest in seeing these succeed. The privacy issues are thorny, but probably easier to solve simply by using the tenets of permission-based marketing.
The question comes down to integration. How do we bridge the technologies of social networks with the technologies of CRM and other relationship management tools? More importantly, how do we integrate the strategies for cultivating lots of weak ties with our strategies for deepening relationships?
These are the questions to which the online activism community must now turn. Sometimes it takes a Malcolm Gladwell to come along and make us ‘blink’ but it is now up to us to create our own ‘tipping point’ to ensure our tweets and likes land with real impact.