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.
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