Malcolm Gladwell, Social Media and the Arts

In a recent New Yorker article on social media, Malcolm Gladwell argues against the conventional wisdom that social media have reinvented social activism. He suggests that the platforms of social media are built around weak ties and that high-risk social action requires strong ties – as well as hierarchy and organization. In the article Gladwell writes:

There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s 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.

Although I would never suggest that participation in the arts is high-risk activism, I will say that the motivation to participate in the arts is more likely to come from strong ties than weak ties. Performing arts, especially, are a social activity. Its about being in a room with other people, watching live people in front of us. As Anne Bogart points out in in a recent blog post about mirror neurons and theater, watching is actually an action, it is a kind of “restraint from doing” but it is definitely a mode of participation. It is not passive. One might even say that attending the arts is a mode of civic participation.

There’s a big difference between “liking” something on Facebook and actually getting out and participating in the performing arts. When people make choices about what they’re going to do or see they often do so in consultation with their friends. So while social media can help spread the word about shows and create new paths for dialogue and interaction, the actual motivation to get off your butt and do something is much more likely to come as a result of the strong social ties of your immediate, tangible social group. New media social networks can facilitate organization, but ultimately it is the strong ties of friendship groups that determine activity.

Gladwell uses as his main example the students who staged a sit-in at a Mississippi diner in 1960. He suggests that what made it possible for them to move from idea to action was two-fold. One, there was a Civil Rights infrastructure in place that could provide knowledge, training and motivation; and secondly, the four original protestors were all close friends. It was this support system that allowed them to take a risky action. He points out that, “…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.”

Once again, I’m not suggesting that attending performing arts is a sacrifice of any order of magnitude, I’m merely suggesting that it requires a commitment of time and resources and participation that is more than a movie, more than television and more than sports, even. The performing arts demands thought and engagement – it is not merely escapism. In a culture of distraction it is asking a lot to expect people to set aside several hours of time, disconnect from their devices, pay attention and open themselves up to new experiences. While under the best of circumstances the arts can be fun, its a different kind of fun than, say, a water park. It is more cerebral and intellectually demanding. In this day and age, that’s asking a lot from people.

Arts marketers ignore social media at their peril, but at the same time, it is a mistake to think that mastering social media – if such a thing is possible – will transform audience behavior or increase attendance exponentially. First of all, there’s still the fact that social media are networks built on acquaintanceship – you’re not reaching tons of new audiences. Anyone that follows an arts organization’s Twitter feed is already interested in the organization. Anyone that “likes” a show on Facebook is probably already affiliated with the show in one way or another. Secondly, as Gladwell suggests, we tend to participate in certain types of events in the real world with our actual friends, not our acquaintances or virtual friends.

I broach the topic because when we talk about “Audience 2.0” we often speak of growing community, not just building audience, and I think we need to really consider what it means to build community. The healthiest arts organizations serve as a nexus for multiple communities centered around artists, bringing multiple constituencies together under one roof. While social media are helpful tools to help us engage with a wide group of people all the time – not just during the event of a show or performance – they are just prelude to actual interaction. Actual interaction is the substance of the matter.

While participating in the arts is not high-risk activism, it is high-intensity. And in some ways arts participation is civic participation. If we look at the performing arts as a laboratory for human experience, how can we use the artistic context to explore ways to build strong ties? How do we bring people together in meaningful, impactful ways? How do we move beyond “making a scene” to “building community” not just among artists but among audiences, too?

Many major art movements started from a small group of friends exploring a certain set of artistic and/or political concerns. From the Beats to Judson to the Abstract Expressionists, to the East Village in the 80’s, NYC has been home to many small, influential artist communities. In the age of the social network maybe we need to figure out how bring the values of strong ties to bear on larger groups of people? What are the characteristics of strong ties that we can model in the arts? How can we build empathy and community on a larger scale? Or at least pull together our smaller communities to create change?

Gladwell is pessimistic, he suggests that social media activism has replaced actual activism and has thus lessened our ability to affect real political or social change. As artists and arts participants we should look at this as a challenge. Our entire existence is predicated on getting people out of their house and into the theater – or the street – to participate in something with their fellow citizens.

Let’s not take the social media revolution for granted, but let’s not overhype it either. Let’s recognize its limitations and use that as a motivator to reconnect live, in real time. Because LIVE MATTERS.

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