Motivations of activists: strong vs. weak ties

Many complain about how our generation doesn’t care about change, or activism. The reality is that we’re involved in many movements, but just not in the same way as our parents. As Gladwell discusses in his article in The New Yorker, social activism has changed since the Civil Rights Movement. Gladwell discusses the differences in the generations’ activism through the lens of relationships and what the strength of those relationship means for a movement. Gladwell says many movements before social media involved “strong-tie/high-risk” actions. This meant that people used riskier methods to instigate change because they had strong relationships with the people they were in the movement with; these ties could convince people to act riskier because there’s more trust between those involved. This climate is very different from today, according to Gladwell. Social media’s rise to prevalence in the activist sector has created more “weak-tie/low-risk” actions, meaning people aren’t as connected with the people they’re acting with and not acting in a way that could really harm them.  When there are weak-ties people within the movement may not be confident that the 500 Facebook members who say they’re going to protest in front of City Hall, actually will.

The main example Gladwell uses, the lunch-counter sit-in protest, undoubtedly required stronger ties and strong commitment to the cause, which perhaps might not be attainable today. In the digital age movements come and go so quickly it’s hard to keep people committed long-term. Recent movements that supposedly used social media to organize, like the Arab Spring, were characterized by the media as occurring in a fairly short time-frame.

Another difference between past and recent movements is the awareness and actions of respective governments; this is largely different because of the internet. In Morozov’s article concerning the role of Twitter he discusses how social media has given governments the ability to gather information on rebels easily. “Once regimes used torture to get this kind of data; now it’s freely available on Facebook.” (Morozov, 2009). Though the intel of governments has changed, the reasons for revolution haven’t. Morozv says that a Twitter revolution is only possible in a regime where the state is ignorant and has no virtual presence, but a revolution is often characterized by a government ignorant of the changing political climate. Regardless of how they’re organized ¾ Facebook or real friends ¾ at their core, revolutions haven’t changed.

How else do you think revolutions and movements differ from previous generations? Do you think “weak-tie/low-risk” movements are just as effective as “strong-tie/high-risk?”

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4 Responses to Motivations of activists: strong vs. weak ties

  1. snayeon says:

    I think that new media revolutions downplay the difficulty and struggles of actually creating social and political change. Facebook and Twitter users can just press a button to share and like different causes and issues to bring awareness but activists in the older generations had to really invest and sacrifice a lot in order to fight to bring about change. For example, people in the 1960s were willing to boycott the bus and walk several miles to get to work in order to actually create social change. However, the environment and group identity play a significant role in high-risk and low-risk movements. Those who have strong ties with one another are not only able to engage in high-risk activism but they are more intrinsically motivated as they become one identity or the in-group. The ingroup are going to sacrifice more because they favor and have affinity for their group compared to the outgroup. However, in the Iranian protests, the ingroup (Twitter protesters) was not effective in bringing change because the ingroup consisted of weak-ties members, who all had different levels of motivation and dislike for the outgroup. For example, although the Iranian protesters and American Twitter members both shared stories and statuses about the protests, they weren’t one unified group, as the Iranian protesters were more invested and were willing to sacrifice more than the American Twitter followers.

  2. cwcullen says:

    I think you have made some interesting arguments about activism and how movements have changed over the years. As we discussed in class, however, Gladwell’s account of the activism during the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t necessarily accurate. Although he argued that people used strong-ties during the Civil Rights Movements, weak-ties actually played a lot stronger of a role than he thought because only the initial members of movements had strong ties and not the majority of the people who ultimately became involved. This could mean that things really haven’t changed that much from the past considering the fact that we are still using weak-ties to get people involved in social movements.

  3. erikpeulicke says:

    I would say that the revolutions and movements today are just as risky as the movements that Gladwell discussed. Protesting against one’s government can pose quite a few risks. However, I think the way of going about it has completely changed. These strong ties created from relationships have transitioned from a requirement to social action to support for action. Weak ties, despite what Gladwell believes, are integral in supporting and carrying out social action, especially in modern day movements.

    The lunch counter example is particularly interesting when looking at weak ties. The four people who started the movement all had strong ties due to their previous relationship before the protest. However, the people who continued the protest in cities miles away didn’t have the strong ties that Gladwell stated were necessary. The use weak ties to carry the movement on to be something great.

    A mixture of both ties is where action really flourishes. The networking capabilities with weak ties get along very well with the close relationships from strong ties.

  4. I think that this is a great comparison to past and future social movements. For example, at U of M in the 1960s The Huron Statement was created, made completely by people who believed that activism required dedication and in-person activism across campus. When The Michigan Daily interviewed them on the decades-long anniversary of its publication, they voiced concerns that the current generation of activists was unwilling to dedicate their time and risk getting in trouble to lend their help to causes that they care about. This could be because a majority of our current generation’s ties in college are weak and fleeting.

    That’s not to say that many of us don’t have strong ties with other friends in different places, but it certainly does place an emphasis on college-related issues. It’s extremely hard to find strong ties in an environment of people that we share classes with, or apartments we share with a few people we’ve known for a couple years. It’s interesting to think about how activism changes depending on circumstance, and what that means for trying to be activists on twitter and facebook versus in-person.

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