Malcolm Gladwell’s latest piece in the New Yorker is an indictment of the role of social media in mobilizing crowds for radical change. While it’s easy to be skeptical, Gladwell actually drills down in to the topic pretty thoroughly. It’s an excellent article, but the crux is that social networks build and maintain weak ties: social relationships with people you otherwise wouldn’t have any contact with.

As Gladwell says in a follow-up interview:

What Twitter and Facebook are capable of doing is introducing a very large group of people to a subject or an issue. The hard part is getting them to go beyond that introduction and dig in deeper—and that leap requires some additional form of social engagement. The Obama election campaign did a very good job of doing both—augmenting social media tools with old-school grass roots organizing. To me, that’s the gold standard.

This makes me think of the fad where people would tint their Twitter avatars green to show “support” or “solidarity” for the Iranian protesters. But all I could think when I saw that was “For how long? How long until you change your avatar back?” It turned out to be a month or so. Additionally, someone wrote a web-app to do the coloring for you. How many people would have done it if you had to manually edit the levels of the image in Photoshop or the GIMP?

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