Belonging

A Real Social Network

Do our social networks have room for the woman on the bus whose clothes don't quite match and whose rough attempts at conversation may interfere with us checking our iPhones?

By Michelle Martin
Published October 05, 2010

Malcom Gladwell, explaining why the revolution will not be tweeted in this month's New Yorker, argues that Twitter and Facebook are not effective tools for social change, simply because social change requires a disciplined effort from people who are committed enough to a cause to undertake that effort despite some level of personal risk.

He opens his article describing the Greensboro sit-in, one of the events that launched the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., and continues on to point out the clear differences between showing up for that event and joining a Facebook group or following a Twitter feed.

Distinguishing between the strong personal ties needed for activists to encourage each other in keeping up the fight, and the relatively weak ties among Facebook "friends" who might join a Save Darfur group, he writes,

The evangelists of social media don't understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.

'Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,' Aaker and Smith write. But that's not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation - by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires...

In other words, 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. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

The encyclopaedia page on the PC Magazine website defines social network (first coined in the 1950s by J. A. Barnes) as "An association of people drawn together by family, work or hobby." So there are social networks... and then there are social networks.

In this month's Atlantic, I read about Donald Triplett, the first person diagnosed with Autism, who had been institutionalised at the tender age of three, with limited visits from his parents. His parents, people of wealth and influence, removed him from the institution two years later and bundled him off to Johns Hopkins, where he was seen by the top child psychiatrist of the day.

It was there that a brand new diagnosis was created for him. He went back home to live, and now enjoys comfortable senior citizen-hood, including regular golf games. This is due in many ways to the social network of which he is a part:

Still, it's clear that Donald reached his potential thanks, in large part, to the world he occupied-the world of Forest, Mississippi - and how it decided to respond to the odd child in its midst. Peter Gerhardt speaks of the importance of any community's "acceptance" of those who have autism. In Forest, it appears, Donald was showered with acceptance, starting with the mother who defied experts to bring him back home, and continuing on to classmates from his childhood and golfing partners today. Donald's neighbors not only shrug off his oddities, but openly admire his strengths-while taking a protective stance with any outsider whose intentions toward Donald may not have been sufficiently spelled out.

Would Facebook have done the same for him? Will so-called social media help everyone to pay more attention to the people beside them on the bus, or in the check-out line? Or are the frequent status updates sucking our perspective from us, along with our time, as Katrina Onstad argued in Saturday's Globe and Mail?

Are we going to be more or less inclined to be pleasant to the sort of odd fellow who can't quite remember how to work his debit card, to borrow from an example that Dr. Peter Gerhardt gives in the Atlantic article?

What about the woman on the bus whose clothes don't quite match and whose rough attempts at conversation may interfere with us checking our iPhones? Will we be more or less inclined to take a shot at finding a topic of mutual interest, or will we just sigh inwardly while thinking, "Only in Hamilton..."

Well, it's not only in Hamilton. Of course it's not. One of the reasons is that we no longer lock up people who make us uncomfortable. Where someone like Donald Triplett used to be the exception, he is now the rule.

For example, the last Ontario institutions for people with developmental disabilities were closed down in 2009. In years gone by, they had been places where people were warehoused, slept in large dormitories with no privacy, showered with no privacy, and used the toilet with no privacy.

They were places that had, in the words of a full-time employee (who spoke in a disconcertingly nostalgic tone) at one of my summer student jobs in the 1980s, some serious time-out rooms. This past summer, an Ontario Superior Court judge even gave the go-ahead for a class-action lawsuit involving former residents of Huronia Regional Centre.

It's better now. We've moved to the community living model, where people live in neighbourhoods and have their own bedrooms decorated to their liking; where they eat meals around a dining room table and choose their own clothes; and where they participate in meaningful activities which may even include paid employment.

Revolutionary. (Readers may find some of the contents of this video disturbing.)

But for the revolution to truly succeed, those who share our neighbourhoods are going to need a social network - and not a virtual one, not least because most developmentally disabled people aren't able to use a computer well enough to navigate Facebook.

Those who are linked to one agency or another will certainly have some kind of formal support in place. Others may not have, and may have fallen through the cracks somehow. But to make their day truly meaningful or even safer, they'll need you and me, well and truly present.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton where she and her husband are watching their 10 children fly the nest, one by one. She has been published in both the Hamilton Spectator and Raise the Hammer, as well as in the online edition of the National Post and, more recently, in the Canadian Urban Transit Association's Urban Mobility Forum. Michelle is coordinator of the Community Access to Transportation program. She is also on the writing/copy editing team of the Crown Point hub paper, The Point. However, the opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own. She sometimes tweets @deltawestmom

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By cristi (anonymous) | Posted October 05, 2010 at 08:38:57

Very thought provoking. Thanks.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted October 05, 2010 at 09:30:38

From the Star article you linked to:

Perspective requires time, and that’s exactly what Facebook takes from us, and can never give back.

A little while ago I saw the headline of an article and it said something like, "The Pain That Everyone In Industrialized Countries Feels." Intrigued, I clicked on it. It was about back pain as the result of poor posture - pretty boring, in fact, when I had been expecting to read about shared emotional or mental pain.

I've since been thinking about this idea, because I believe that there is something painful that almost everyone in industrialized nations is experiencing, which is lack of time. Material-rich, time-poor, is something that people often remark about us. Given that there is nothing more valuable than time, just how poor are we? And why are we so time-poor in the first place?

Facebook brags that people spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook. What sort of world would we have if just 100 billion of those minutes were spent creating, writing, volunteering, reflecting, or actually spending real time, face-to-face, with friends and family?

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted October 05, 2010 at 09:30:46

I really liked that Gladwell article when I read it. It was a long-time coming, and I'm glad someone with some "prestige" in the whole social-networks field has compiled a bunch of existing research and applied it and contrasted it with what we're hearing from journos and media-types desperate to believe that Twitter, Facebook and iPads will change the world (and hopefully, along the way, justify their jobs).

But what I thought was his best argument was the one that brought together years of studies into collective action and what actually WORKS when trying to affect change:

"What makes people capable of this kind of activism? 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."

This is a classic study that I've referred to often. It was one of the key studies that made me wonder if strong work and play relationships might be meaningful to activists on campus (i.e. activists that play together, stay together, and get stuff accomplished). The less-than-stunning results of new forms of organizing have only reinforced this idea that while the internet certain facilitates the formation of groups, there is still a need to organize in more traditional ways (read: IN PERSON) to get stuff done.

I think we're finally reaching the tail end of the exuberance associated with the possibilities of social media. Organizers I know are finally starting to get a lot more realistic about what it can actually accomplish in the area of social change: awareness raising and possibly a gateway to real participation. Despite initial enthusiasm, social media have not revolutionized organizing, because a lot more goes into social movements than a sign-up list and vague commitments.

If you're into quantifying things, then you're probably also dismayed that even with all the buzz around these 'movements', their results have been disappointing. Considering the explosion of social networking groups dedicated to affecting some social change (i.e. Save Darfur) an average of 9 cents a person sure isn't going to accomplish much, and its hardly anything to write home about.

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By d.knox (registered) | Posted October 05, 2010 at 10:03:07

I was listening to something the other day about micro-volunteering and a similar idea was being put forward - that people want to do something, but don't want to make any significant sacrifices or suffer inconveniences in order to do so. The idea of the micro is reduce this barrier to participation by chunking the volunteer tasks into tiny units that won't be too bothersome to people. Signing a petition of Facebook requires even less involvement and gives a warm fuzzy in return.

Still, perhaps we can view these things as gateway drugs - getting people thinking about activism or volunteering and then perhaps at a later date they'll be able to move up to something stronger which requires a little more commitment. That is, unless another really great reality show comes along to preoccupy us...

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted October 05, 2010 at 10:09:29

Recently, I replied to a commenter on my blog who was insisting that social networking was going to be the way forward to creating the increased 'relationship of engagement' between residents and their councillors in local governance (my current passion), that:

"Fashioning a deeper 'relationship of engagement' in local governance will certain involve social networking...but cannot be the foundation of it any more than the phone was the answer for all relationship dilemmas in the past."

Naturally, for people of a certain age, this comes an attack against a foundation of their lives. I don't mean it to be. I believe in change, I recognize and understand how the WWW has forever shifted how we see things and communicate our feelings about them...

...but I still believe that at the core of everything is human-to-human engagement. In other words, putting a very fine point on it: 'You have to be breathing the same air.'

We're part of the animal kingdom, and included in all of the concomitant aspects of being 'animals' are the realities of being physical creatures in a physical world. We were not born with modems, and nothing will ever replace face-to-face engagement.

I'm still working my way through Lizbeth Cohen's 'A Consumers' Republic; The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America', and I cannot recommend this book fervently enough. I mention it in regards to Michelle's great article because 'social networking' is nothing more than a consumable. Not just in the sense of requiring the technology to participate, but that the participation is a consumable, a consumer item. And Lord knows, people love their consumables, be it technology...or politics or fitness...or 'happiness'.

Cohen explains the quantum shift in both values and perception from the point just before The Great Depression, through WWII, The Cold War and the ensuing 50+ years to where we are today. Most everything we see as 'modern life' is in fact an expression of 'the consumer society'. The good...and the bad. (It's just that we're less apt to be willing to acknowledge the bad as being so.)

My reason for injecting this seemingly disparate tangent into the discussion is simply to remind ourselves that what matters most in a humane world is not the innovations or the great marches forward in perceived 'standard of living'. What matters most in a humane world is our expressed humanity to each other.

Thanks Michelle, for presenting this opportunity to be reminded of this.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 05, 2010 at 13:30:42

I agree pretty strongly with mystoneycreek here - social networks like Facebook and so many others function mainly as consumables. That doesn't mean all internet-based social networks are, though. Real life communities like PureRave and BME were doing this years before facebook, with all the same basic functions, and a lot more interesting things going on.

The sites which are really transforming things get a lot less fanfare - craigslist, freecycle, instructables, etc. And in a lot of ways I think we're really only seeing the beginning of that type of thing.

And in any case, sometimes the revolutions produced by technologies like these have little to do with the stated purpose, and was barely imagined in the beginning. Other groups adopt these things and use them for their own purposes. Consider Paris, for instance, where a big factor in the near-constant riots is the technological superiority of the rioters' text-message based communication system.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted October 05, 2010 at 19:34:52

My reason for injecting this seemingly disparate tangent into the discussion is simply to remind ourselves that what matters most in a humane world is not the innovations or the great marches forward in perceived 'standard of living'. What matters most in a humane world is our expressed humanity to each other. --mystoneycreek

Thanks for these insightful comments, everyone. One great thing about writing for and reading online publications is all of the interesting extra that gets added to the original piece. And one of the worthwhile aspects of electronic media is the injection of a little tangential thinking into a respectful discussion.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted October 06, 2010 at 15:40:15

Great read and some great comments. I agree wholeheartedly that nothing replaces face-to-face contact. I personally do try and strike up a conversation sometimes in the check out line at the grocery store and make such a boring event come alive a bit especially when it's an older person who looks a bit down. My wife and myself don't live a real social life besides work and I enjoy it as well conversing with someone face to face in a check-out line or mall or game or concert or wherever. It's adds to my life. Now so does some social networking as well but agree, what's that line "there's nothing like the real thing baby, nothing like the real thing", something like that.

Thanks Michelle for this article!

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By lorne (registered) - website | Posted October 06, 2010 at 19:45:06

Thanks for the thought-provoking article. When I read the Gladwell article a couple of weeks ago, one of the things that occurred to me was how he minimizes the awareness-raising potential of social media. While it is true that signing an online petition requires little effort or commitment, it still has the effect of informing people about important issues that may, in one way or another, take root and lead to further action or involvement in the future.

If I could cite a personal example, a few years ago I learned about an organization called kiva.org, an Internet-based microfinance organization that facilitates loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world. Having learned about it through social media, I first became a lender and, later on, a volunteer editor with the organization. While the volunteer work takes place with minimal inconvenience in my home on my computer, does that fact in any way invalidate the commitment I have made, one that I couldn't have made in the first place had I not learned about in on the Internet?

Comment edited by lorne on 2010-10-06 18:47:37

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted October 06, 2010 at 22:58:27

No it certainly does not invalidate your commitment you made Lorne at all. Nice work!

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 06, 2010 at 23:34:46

Ultimately, the best investment capital you can give a nifty venture is your time. Most of us, especially in fairly unstructured volunteer environments (construction one day, web design the next), are capable of giving a lot more than an hour's wages in an hour's work, and what we get back is far, far, more personally valuable.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted October 07, 2010 at 07:40:35

No it certainly does not invalidate your commitment you made Lorne at all. Nice work!

Ultimately, the best investment capital you can give a nifty venture is your time.

Absolutely.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted October 08, 2010 at 08:03:52

Two takes on a Facebook breast-cancer campaign, pretty much in agreement about it's pointlessness, that I read this morning.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted October 13, 2010 at 06:12:05

And here's an intriguing followup: http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2010/1...

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