Last month at home, I was flipping through the New Yorker in a doctor’s waiting room. (Aside: why don’t more doctors offices have the New Yorker instead of Cosmo?) I opened to Malcolm Gladwell’s now oft-quoted “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” Gladwell essentially argues that online social networks create large networks of weakly connected people, but that for radical change, people have to be intimately connected to the people fighting beside them to stick with it for the long haul:
The kind of activism associated with social media is built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. There is strength in weak ties -our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet is terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism….. Social networks are effective at increasing [not motivation but] participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires… Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice…
On the other hand, strong ties lead to high-risk (and potentially higher-impact) activism, as demonstrated by the Civil Rights movement:
The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.
(Another aside for all of you BC International Studies students out there: I’m wondering if there’s a comparison to be made with Keohane and Nye‘s interdependence theory? An analysis for another much more academic day… or person. Unrath, want to take a stab? I would be very excited for a guest post. Other readers are free to peer pressure him in the comments.)
Plenty of insightful analyses and critiques have been written about Gladwell’s argument. For now, I do not have any analysis to add, but his ideas have been swirling around in my head since the beginning of my time in Boston and my return to Cambodia. Spending time around my closest friends has made me reflect on the role that strong ties to other activists have played in the way I live. It’s not that we are engaged in the same kind of high-risk activism that Gladwell describes from the Civil Rights movement, but I think my closest friends and I understand our work and our lifestyles as acts of resistance: from working for immigrant rights in the US, to defending refugees’ safety and living conditions on the Thai-Burmese border; from living in intentional, simple community homes in St. Louis to staying with parents to work 80 hour weeks managing a progressive state senator’s re-election campaign. Our lives are different from most of the people we grew up around.
So one crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remembered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.
My friends aren’t sitting beside me at a lunch counter, and I very rarely fear for my safety, let alone my life, in my daily work. But they are telling me about their activism and work over Gchat and explaining struggles and fear on Skype calls. Once in awhile, we’re having these conversations in person, strengthening our ties to each other, and strengthening our resolve to keep pushing ahead with our goals and vision for a more just world. One of these rare occasions took place over the last week, when my college roommate, Lisbee, was visiting from Mae Sot, where she volunteers with the Karen Women’s Organization.
Sharing my life here with one of my best friends was incredible. To be able to reference late-night conversations about the struggle to balance activism and self-care, to remember shared moments of pee-in-you-pants laughter and heartache at sexual assault, to have a friend point out threads of continuity between our college years and my new life in Battambang — it breathed renewed purpose, energy, and courage into me. Most days in Battambang are idyllic, even as my work constantly reminds me of sexual violence and disease. On the rare tough day though, when courage is both especially necessary and especially lacking, it’s just as much the strong ties to my friends half a world away as it is the desire to help the women right in front of me, that keeps me going.