A Civic Dialogue on the Tools of Social Media

January 11, 2011 //

By Jill Blair

January 11, 2011

Thanks to TWI, I was referred to and just finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s article Small Change: why the revolution will not be tweeted, (New Yorker, October 2, 2010). The article resonated with me. I wondered if the echo was generational – me being my age and he being his, but truly, it doesn’t matter. I am an out of the closet skeptic about the power of virtual connections. I believe that the tools of social media have power and even potential yet unrealized, but my tendency is to see the introduction of new communications technology as adding to rather than substituting for the tools we already possess. Moreover, I worry about what we don’t know about social media and its effect on our relationships, our beliefs and our actions.

I “left” (virtually that is) Gladwell’s piece and went on to read Allison Fine’s critique. And then I paused. I was struck by just how critical Allison (for whom I have great affection and whose work I hold in high esteem) was of Gladwell’s assessment. She wrote,”More than misunderstanding the role and power of social media, what I found most disturbing and disappointing about the article was that Gladwell doesn’t understand activism (emphasis added).” Fine was “disturbed” and “disappointed” and took issue not only with Gladwell’s challenge to the tool box but his whole construction project. I followed the Fine trail on the blogosphere. I was surprised by how emotional some of the reactions were – how committed we seem to be to the positions we hold with respect to these new connecting and communication technologies.

Some of us are promoting and defending these tools with great enthusiasm – crediting them with everything from changing minds and hearts to opening pocketbooks and solving profound social problems. Others of us (myself included) are fretting over whether these tools of instant and anonymous communication are diminishing our capacity for real connection and commitment – compromising our ability to care over time for anything long enough to actually change it.

These positions are extreme, perhaps. They represent our story frames about social media – some of us see it as an unmitigated panacea while others see it as a potential tool of mass destruction. How do we change our frames so that we can benefit from what we each bring, know and believe? Where and how can we explore the tools and the feelings they provoke in us? Or must we stay in our respective camps and “shout” at one another over our virtual fences? I’m looking for the conversation; not the easy argument or the deadly debate, but the real conversation – the success of which we measure by how much we learn, not how much we say.


  1. The Whitman Institute on January 13, 2011 at 10:25 am


    Thank you for the thoughtful post. I appreciate your candor and your questions at the end. It seems that whatever the content, whether it be the power or potential power of social media tools or any other issue that folks can wedge between individuals/communities, there is a hunger in this era for a way to communicate across real or imagined dividing lines.

    Thanks again for contributing to the discourse here!


  2. John Esterle on January 14, 2011 at 4:29 pm


    I echo Pia's response and also want to add that I like how you raised up the issue of framing at the end. One of the strengths of dialogue is its ability to help us examine how we frame stories, problems, decisions, etc. and to open up the possibility of "reframing" if needed. I think social media tools hold promise for helping us see things differently but they can also way too easily help us build our own echo chambers. No news there, but certainly these are ongoing questions that are, as you say, most productively explored through a learning lens where we can receive feedback in an open, non-defensive manner. Easier said than done of course and something that applies across the board across issues and contexts.

    Anyway, thanks again for your thought provoking post.


  3. Frank H. Burton on January 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Hi Jill,

    The optimum solution to the dilemma of diluted real-world commitment caused by too much emphasis on social media communication is to combined them (aka, Meetup.com.) That's how we at The Circle of Reason organize in the real world, and communicate in the virtual one.