Not Social Media, Social Action

Last week, I visited Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, for “Not Social Media, Social Action,” a presentation event hosted by the Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) program. The event featured the Chief Marketing Officer of, a well-funded, international nonprofit with a mission to “fight the absurdity of extreme poverty,” presenting in tandem with a representative of a team of IMC students. The IMC team had completed a class project with ONE, the task of which was to design ways to push those already engaged in low-level social media engagement with ONE toward more meaningful participation in the organization’s social change efforts.

The conundrum of low-level engagement on social media got me thinking right away of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” an article published several years ago in the New Yorker, which I’ve put on many-a-syllabus, most often paired with a bit of enthusiastic Clay Shirky. Gladwell argues that while social media can facilitate “low-risk” activism—Facebook Likes, petition clicks, small donations—it has little, if any role to play in the fight against big problems like racism or extreme poverty. These problems, says Gladwell, require coordinated and persistent strategy developed by hierarchical organizations, as well as strong-tie connections between activists, which steel their resolve to engage in the high-risk tactics necessary to fight big problems (e.g., holding your ground at a ‘whites only’ lunch counter in the Deep South).

While Gladwell doesn’t put much faith at all in social media networks, my students over the years have consistently argued that social media can play a useful, if limited role in social change efforts: with it, people can aggregate into an impressive show of numbers (think Tahrir Square), and as ONE’s CMO said many times in his talk, an organization can without a doubt get new members “under their tent” with a successful social media campaign (ONE has, as of October 2013, 737K Facebook Likes).

But can social media, carefully deployed, do more? Can it enable meaningful social action?

The IMC team presented a design developed with the principles of “gamification”: by completing more difficult activism tasks, members of accrue points—for example, 30 points for clicking a petition, 50 points for making a phone call to a Congressperson—and these points translate to rewards. The team’s mockup was compelling—I liked the idea of seeing your participation efforts aggregated and compared against some sort of goal—and the rewards are admirably not swag: second prize is a phone call from, first prize is the opportunity to participate in a ONE advocacy event.

I left the event still thinking about Gladwell’s argument, and about whether a ladder or a pyramid is really the best metaphor for how individuals come to commit to a cause. Gamified participation does seem to have potential to nudge people from very low-level engagement to slightly higher levels: from Facebook Liking to writing letters or making phone calls. Whether this approach—or really any approach that is enacted in the weak-ties space of social networks—can move low-level participants to eventually give deeply of themselves and face risks for a cause, of that I’m less sure.