Network Schmetwork.... or Not Everything You See Is a Nail

Kudos to Malcolm Gladwell.

Or as we'd say in my home church, "Say it, Brother, say it! Come on, now, preach it!"

In a New Yorker article published today (dated October 4), Gladwell blows the lid of the myth that Twitter and Facebook have created a true social revolution, and more than this, have become engines for significant social change.

They haven't, because they can't.

"Facebook activism," Gladwell writes, " 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."

Real social change requires massive commitment. All that Twitter and Facebook can actually generate (and they generate it quite well!) is massive participation.

Commitment requires discipline-- and discipline requires very close personal relationships-- relationships you're ready to lay down your life for.

And discipline that generates a scaling up effect to actual social change requires an actual leader. 

Social networks are generally leaderless, and notoriously undisciplined. That is, unless they're led by people with a fairly iron hand to get things done in them, and are able to get rid of or not be hindered by participants who won't follow that lead.

That doesn't make social networks bad. It just makes them fairly unhelpful by themselves if what you're trying to generate is social change. "Fanboys/fangirls" you can get. Lots and lots of them. And they can generate some "one-offs" that seem significant at the time. 

But one-offs do not actual "transformation of the world" make.  

That takes folks who will go with you to the front lines.

Folks who will pick up their cross daily and follow... as someone once said.

Social networks per se don't generate people like that.

Communitas, as Alan Hirsch describes it, does.  

Social networks can become a channel for those disciplined in communitas -- deeply committed, strong-tie community, as Gladwell terms it-- to travel and communicate their ideas across all sectors of society. 

In that way, social networks can be vital parts of transformation.

But they can't start it. And they can't sustain it.

Through social networks a meme can spread rapidly, even "virally."

But without the commitment-- and leadership-- generated by "strong-ties," spread is all you get. The meme comes and goes, and few, if any lives, are impacted, much less transformed.

Gladwell's article is a must-read for any who are in leadership or trying to "rethink" leadership or ecclesiology in The United Methodist Church today. We hear (and see!) much talk (and action!) of "replacing committees with networks," at multiple levels of our corporate life these days, all the while telling ourselves that these two very different kinds of social structures can get the same kinds of work done with equal reliability, or maybe even better. 

Gladwell notes that it would be unthinkable for a car company to try to design a car by using social networks. (Heck, even the "committee design" processes of British Leyland in the 1970s were an unmitigated disaster, for consumers and manufacturers alike!). 

The counter argument usually made is "But look at Open Source Software! That's designed using social networking tools, and anyone can participate!"

So say those who know nothing about what it takes to run an open source project. I lead one-- The Open Source Liturgy Project. It isn't self-organizing-- and few such projects are-- not if the desired end-product is the timely release of high-quality resources. Go read The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which remains sort of the "bible" for this kind of work. Or actually join such a project. Then let's talk. 

No. Getting things done, and done well, things that will change lives in a positive way, requires high standards and high commitment-- and networks alone do not produce that. Never have. Probably never will. 

We need networks-- for the value that networks provide in reducing the bar to participation and thus increasing participation. All social ties are good-- whether the weak ones social networking can provide, or the really strong ones that can lead us to truly life-changing commitments.

But we also need, and critically need strong leaders and excellent managers of well-organized, disciplined systems AND well-organized, disciplined persons committed to achieving a common vision. 

The right tools for the right jobs.

As popular as "social networks" have become, they can't and don't replace the commitment, discipline and hard work necessary to change our world.

Network schmetwork? Maybe not quite that-- but if we're at all serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ "for the transformation of the world"-- or at least if that last phrase is to have any real, palpable, historical significance, we need far more discipline and accountability than any networks we have in place or even could build can possibly deliver.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credit: Kris Krüg. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.