The undiscussed ambivalence surrounding social media

Ah, the ambivalence we have toward social media.  It is so powerful and so good that most people are thrilled to be involved in it.  Yet at the same time, it’s so misunderstood that most people aren’t sure they’re even doing it right or if it’s even valuable.  How can that be?

In his recent story in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell pulls back the curtain on the powers of social media as it relates to activism, declaring that, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”  His beef with the hyper enthusiasm focused on social media as the “modern” activism is that, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties .  .  .  But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

He has some very interesting points, and examples to back it up.

Social media networking is easy.  Heck, we all have a few friends on Facebook with whom we normally wouldn’t associate.  We see what they like, what they believe in, and often what irritates them.  In some cases, information our network shares can be valuable to us, such as when we receive coupon offers, traffic updates, reviews of seminars or concerts we wish to see, etc.   But Mr. Gladwell’s point is that while we support causes others proselytize, we almost always do so in a minor way.  Clicking the “like” button on Facebook does nothing for us, other than tell our network that we support the post.  How much or how little support we put behind it is never known to others, but we feel good.  Heck, not clicking “like” on any subject doesn’t even open us up to ridicule even if we didn’t “like” a post such as “Be nice to people”.  Did anyone ever get on you for not liking something?  I doubt it.

So what power is there behind supporting causes spread through social media?  None, according to Gladwell.  And the soft nature of social media may actually be negative.

A recent Chicago Tribune article seems to support this claim by showing that despite huge acceptance of Breast Cancer Awareness month by activists using social media and other channels, the rate of breast cancer in women has dropped only slightly since 1990.  While true the activism has led to more testing and more research, the problem is that this subject is much deeper than activists know.  Yes, awareness is good.  And the awareness generated by social media does help.

But to Gladwell’s point, social media activism is so weak that most supporters never go beyond the easy surface.  They “like”.  They change their profile images.  They post scripted messages.  They tell you what their bra color is.  But do they read the links in the serious posts that discuss how complicated breast cancer research is?

My point isn’t that social media is bad.  Rather, our expectations of it are too high.  Social media helps spread messages, both personal and corporate, to a network of people with whom we have at least a passing relationship.  It’s the recipients choice to click through, to download the coupon, or to sign up for a class we recommend.

Judging your social media efforts by how many like you doesn’t ring the cash register.  The true test is to turn those likes into full blown activists for your brand.  Get them to read more information about you. Get them to visit.  Get them to buy.  Get them to do something they are not already doing. And get them to be advocates for your brand.

It’s harder than this chorus of social media proponents lead us to believe simply because, as Mr. Gladwell puts it, ” The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient.”

And that brings us back to ambivalence.

One Comment

  1. October 8, 2010


    I also think that “fun” Facebook groups and pages are able to draw more members easier than actual causes and companies. Facebook pages like “Flipping the Pillow Over to Get to the Cold Side” can get over 3,800,000 members because it’s a light, fun diversion. Real causes, companies and organizations may have more difficulty gaining members — but chances are those hard-won members are true believers.