Don’t Edit the Insurgency out of Martin Luther King, Jr.

For the past three years, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, David Meyer, a sociology and public policy professor at UC Irvine, has reposted a piece on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insurgency and how this day ostensibly celebrating this man, his values, and his actions came about. King was not popular in his day, he was growing even more unpopular before he was assassinated, and even when Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a national holiday in 1983, there was large-scale ambivalence or worse (to put it lightly) about celebrating this man. Meyer writes:

The King holiday was about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but it was meant to represent far more than the man. King stands in for the civil rights movement and for African-American history more generally. I often wonder if the eloquence of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech winds up obscuring not only a man with broader goals, but a much more contested–and ambitious–movement.

Meyer concludes:

Posterity has rescued an image of Martin Luther King, at the expense of the man’s own broader political vision.

Ironically, in elevating an insurgent to a position in America’s pantheon of historic heroes, we risk editing out the insurgency.

How do we not edit out the insurgency? My friend, Pendarvis Harshaw, models this beautifully in his piece, “Moms 4 Housing and MLK’s Case for Running ‘Red Lights.'” It is a sharp, incisive, and moving piece about the housing crisis in California and its impact on African-Americans in particular.

Christakis, Gladwell, and Catalyzing Movements

Last month, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a provocative essay on online networks and social movements. I personally thought it was a brilliant articulation, but he made one problematic claim: “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties.”

This was a gross and unnecessary simplification. Folks on the Internet — including much of my close community — predictably threw a hissy fit, which was justified, but unfortunate. We missed the opportunity to use Gladwell’s piece as a launching pad for thoughtful deliberation on how to make social media platforms even better at facilitating meaningful connections.

I skirted the issue then, but I’m compelled to enter the fray now, thanks to Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, the authors of Connected and two of the leading researchers in the field of social networks.

I am a card-carrying member of their fan club. And so it pains me to say that their essay, published today, on Tweeting and behavior change completely mystified me.

They start with an interesting anecdote. The actress, Alyssa Milano, who has over a million followers on Twitter, tweeted about their book and posted a link to purchase it. The net effect? Zero extra books sold.

Alyssa Milano MLB 2008

As an experiment, they decided to get someone “more influential” — in this case, Tim O’Reilly — to tweet about their book to his 1.5 million followers. Net result? A few extra books sold.

Finally, they had Susannah Fox of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project tweet about their book to her 4,000 followers. This time, they sold three extra books.

What were their takeaways from this sordid experiment?

  1. The nature of your ties is what matters, not the number. Furthermore — and they directly call out Gladwell here — online connections can be either strong or weak.
  2. “Second, it is not just “influentials” who matter, but also “influenceables.” O’Reilly and Milano can both be persuasive, and they are connected to millions of people. But it was the thousands of followers of Fox who ultimately won –granted, not by much — our little contest. To make change happen, we need sheep as well as shepherds.”
  3. Online interactions must feel real in order to cultivate change.

I’m completely on board points 1 and 3. I have no idea of what 2 means, which is why I just quoted them.

My problem with their essay is that none of these points follow from their anecdote.

Their experiment centered around a simple set of desired actions: Click on the link, buy the book. In all three cases, basically no one completed the second step. If anything, this result supports Gladwell’s argument: online connections are mostly weak ties.

But that doesn’t follow either. Case in point: In 1999, the day after Barbara Walter’s interview with Monica Lewinsky aired, the lipstick Lewinsky was wearing (Club Monaco in Glaze) completely sold out. I can’t give you a definitive explanation for why this happened. What’s certain is that everyone who was watching the interview that night was a weak tie, and yet somehow, Lewinsky was able to get thousands of her “followers” to go out and make a purchase.

Here’s my takeaway: Yes, the nature of your ties matter. Yes, authenticity matters. But space matters also. We react to space in visceral, often irrational ways. Rational or not, if we understand how space affects our behavior, we can leverage that space accordingly.

This is why architects installed long stairwells leading up to the entrances of the great cathedrals. (People look up when they walk up stairs, and looking up elicits a feeling of reverence.) This is why you won’t find clocks or windows in Las Vegas casinos. This is why I chose to use a picture of Alyssa Milano in this blog post, even though she is only peripherally relevant here.

And this brings me back to my original point. What we — people interested in leveraging these new tools for social change — really need to start talking about is how the tools themselves can do better at eliciting desirable behaviors, how to transform transactions into meaningful action.