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. A 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 Malcolm Gladwell is missing in his critique of social networking tools.

Bridging Weak and Strong Ties

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.


  1. Nathan Henderson-james

    On that final question, I’m eagerly awaiting the beta version of Pro.Act.Ly that is due at the end of October. I think it will be a gigantic leap forward in terms of intergration. Not sure how robust the CRM is, but the rest of it, from what I’ve heard so far, has me almost drooling with anticipation.

    • Thanks Nathan. I’ll be eager to see what they have. Hope they don’t try to re-invent the wheel on the CRM side. That’s a heck of a lot of coding – better to try to integrate with existing solutions whenever possible, I always say.

  2. Underlying your message is Ghandi’s statement ‘Be the change you want to create’. In other words I can begin with being an observer as the Engagement Pyramid entry point suggests but somewhere I have to be willing to invest in the change I want to see come about and progress through the levels of the pyramid.

    I appreciate the clarity and depth you bring to topics and issues

    • Thanks Rick. Yes, I hadn’t thought of it that way exactly. I almost ended up calling the “engagement pyramid” the “leadership pyramid” because that is exactly what it is trying to develop: leadership. And leadership starts from within.

  3. I have a few ideas regarding the engagement framework. I will share my thoughts on this subject later this week. CR

  4. In order to create the ambitious changes we need to save ourselves from ourselves, those seeking change need to rapidly expand the number of strong ties with committed individuals willing to do hard lifting.
    But as Gideon insightfully points out, these relationships take time and resources to nurture. The foundation is a rock solid and always improving CRM, but it also takes a strong organizational commitment to to sharing and giving up power.
    Given the scale and pace of change needed the best that activist organizations can do is evolve from being the doers to becoming catalysts.
    Although my organization has been quite successful with online strategies going viral (and some non-digital approaches going viral … see our NoTanker Loonie campaign) nothing replaces a human being talking face to face with a human being.
    Although social media and other on line acquisition strategies have brought lots of people to our campaigns, we use aggressive voluntary sorting strategies to prioritize building deeper relationships with selected new supporters. This is hard work.
    In analyzing the actions of our new supporters we have seen a qualitative difference between those that connected with us on-line and those that did so face to face.
    Although this doesn’t prevent us from continuing to try to ramp up online and social media strategies, it does help us set priorities.
    Although Gadwell may have overlooked some of the nuances, I agree with his thesis. I too do not believe that there are a significant numbers of folks out there prepared to do the hard work of fundamental change without strong-tie relationships.

    • Gideon Rosenblatt

      Amen, brother. You folks at Dogwood get this stuff. Thanks for weighing in with your thoughts. It means the most coming from folks who have actually done the hard work to do this kind of bridging work.

      The catalyst point is right on; shifting the role of staff from doers to facilitators who let others do some of the doing. And opening things up so that the org has to share some of its power? Yep, yep, and triple yep. That doesn’t mean willy-nilly doing whatever anyone asks you. The mission keeps the focus to ensure alignment. Clearly communicating that mission ensures you attract the right people so that when you engage them and share some of the power with them, you’re all pulling in the same direction.

  5. There’s some good wisdom here. I’d like to add that the technologies are only significant in social change efforts if they lead to deep changes in behavior, principally around the roles and relationships people fill and the strength of emotional bonds that support this new configuration.

    A vital element is the selection of narratives that people in the network “live out and experience”. One of the problems with online petition drives is that participants are typically dropped into the frame of a consumer transaction. This frame is historically a fairly passive ‘make a choice, then your part is done’ type of interaction. It is similar to the treatment of civic engagement as beginning and ending in the voting booth (where emphasis is placed on the transaction and nothing else).

    The great opportunities for social media technologies come with the potential for shifting the frames of engagement to increase participation and build stronger bonds. And the stories underlying the interaction will be paramount.

  6. Gideon Rosenblatt

    Thanks for the note, Joe, and for your insights on the importance of how we frame what this engagement looks like.

    In many ways, we have become a society of consumers, where simple transactions define who and what we are – rather than the deeper, richer kinds of interactions that come with deeper, richer ties. If we believe that all that is possible is clicking, then all we will get is clicking. People rise or sink to expectations. Expect more and we get more. Expect less, and that is what we will get.

    I wrote a bit about this transactional versus relational modes of connecting here:

    Always great to get your insights.

  7. Nice article. Just been reading Granovetter (1983) who points out that it might be completely rational for the wealthier and more secure to cultivate weak ties and for the poor to cultivate strong ties.

    This seems to result in a self-regulating ability to protest in the way that Gladwell describes. By this I mean that if your situation is dire, you will have strong ties at the ready in any case. If your situation is secure, then even though you have only weak ties to call upon, you probably have less reason to protest in the first place and probably have more power to express your dissatisfaction in other ways.

    • Gideon Rosenblatt

      Thanks for reading/commenting. Makes sense. In fact, when you think about it, people with more resources tend to be more frequently in positions where they can form weak ties that go outside their geographic community in the first place (college, advanced degrees, travel, etc.). There are a few exceptions like the military.

      The hard part though is that strong ties are really good for certain types of things, but weak ties help you bridge to other networks, which is key to finding ways to influence decisions.