Passive activism in a digital age

Post by Kerri Brkich in


Malcolm Gladwell made headlines during a recent appearance in Vancouver

Back in April I attended the F5 Technology Expo. The keynote speaker was Malcolm Gladwell, social commentator and author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, who has provided an interesting take on social trends and the nature of success.

His keynote topic was on social media, and whether the claims that it is transforming society are valid, or overstated rhetoric for a yet to be understood medium. His thesis is that while social media is good for many things—maintaining connections and communicating information to a wider audience—in its current state it is not transformative.

Social media fosters “weak connections.” Weak connections are people we do not know well and do not spend a lot of time with. These connections are not negative or without value, in fact they are often incredibly important for networking purposes and information gathering. However, the connections that really matter in our day-to-day lives are strong—they are with people we live in close proximity to, who we speak with regularly, and who we trust.

Gladwell argued that in order for transformative movements to be successful (whether they are political, religious, or social), participants must have strong connections to each other in order to maintain solidarity and move their agenda forward. He cited many examples, from Castro to Gandhi, to the civil rights Freedom Riders, and in each case, the one common factor was the nexus of each movement was a strong central core of true believers, who had strong ties to at least one other person in the group.

In order for motivated people to take that next step and actually get involved, they require someone they’re close with to already be involved; therefore, the weak ties inherent in social media negates its effectiveness as an agent of transformative social change.

His speech was interesting and thought provoking, although one could argue whether or not these platforms were ever created to push societal change, or if users even see them as a legitimate means to activist ends.

However, we do need to be careful that social media doesn’t foster passive activism. Many legitimate causes get lost in cyberspace because in this age of information, all we need to do to “get involved” is join a fan page, or “like” something our friend has posted. Certainly people are more informed, but what are they doing with that knowledge? By signing on-line petitions or forwarding links what exactly are we accomplishing? It’s dangerous because it lets people off the hook from actually doing anything real, or even following up to see what became of their on-line efforts.

And Gladwell’s main the point, that social media fosters weak ties, is an important one, because most people now feel that they have fewer strong connections with people they can trust, which could have serious implications.

People are losing their sense of connection to their communities and each other, and the exponential growth of social media is the canary in the coalmine, not the culprit. People are desperate to feel connected to other people, which is why Facebook added 100 million new users in 9 months, and if it were a country it would be the world’s 4th largest. If that doesn’t speak to people needing other people I don’t know what does.

We are disconnected form each other, but plugged into our iPods and cell phones. We are less trusting of our neighbours, colleagues, and acquaintances—and don’t even think about talking to strangers. What I remember most about my Olympic experience was finally having that sense of belonging to a wider community—as human beings we need that, and many of us aren’t getting it in our day-to-day lives, which is the bigger issue that should be addressed.


According to this logic, mass media has no role in political life or political movements. Ideas matter too, not only social relationships. Social media carries ideas as well as connections. Like mass media, these ideas shape political realities.

@ Tom : "...ideas shape political realities". Unfortunately they are the same old ideas and so political realities rest on the time-tested principle that might makes right. If social media threatened the status quo they would be crushed or co-opted in the blink of an eye.

There are no new ideas out there.Same old ones,re-branded and then thrown in the pot. Some will get over cooked in the end. Capitalism,socialism, communism, imperialism, dictatorship,they all were currents imposed on the majority of people, in most cases by force and were "quiet" for awhile. New activism? try Global warming alarmists and the greens. They are trying hard to establish themselves as the new gurus on "they know it all" when in fact what they want is a piece of the pie. And a place at the tables for their numerous self appointed gurus. Getting inside is the hard thing to do. In the same way the Hollyhock cult is trying to spread their act here in Vancouver. MSM, blogs, office at the city...Check out the bashing I got on Bula's blog for not agreeing with some bike nazis other there. A heard mentality is better represented inside a group that on your own, behind a blog or a comment.

Might be time to let your editorial colleagues in on your desire for positivity in the public sphere. Most of what I read on here is identity-based negativity.

No guff-Higgins the only reason people pile on you is that you resort to calling people fascists and nazis.

Interesting post. I tend to agree that social media are a tool rather than a source or creator of transformation.

And just like email, they can be easily ignored.

re: "passive activism"... there is an article in the May 2010 issue of Wired Magazine entitled "Instant Karma" that seems relevant.

Here's a link to the article online:

Check out!

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