Social Media / Social Activism Redux: Can we Learn from Behaviour Change Theories?

What started as a simple column post a column on October 4th in the New Yorker has really turned into a firestorm of discussion over the last few days (reflecting a building crescendo of discontent and plaudits from those on each side of the debate). The latest volley in the debate has come from the founder of Twitter themselves in a piece in the Guardian. In that column, the chief Tweeters remark:

Williams said:

“It was a very well-constructed argument but it was kind of laughable.

“Anyone who’s claiming that sending a tweet by itself is activism, that’s ludicrous — but no one’s claiming that, at least no one that’s credible. If you can’t organise you can’t activate. I thought [the article] was entertaining but kind of pointless.”

They have a good point. But while Gladwell might be too dismissive of the power of tools like Twitter, it is easy to overstep and imply that information is power and having more of it networked leads to activation (something I discussed earlier this week).

Knowing and doing are very different and any analysis of major theories on behaviour change and the evidence, shows a relatively weak correlation between knowing more and doing more. It also shows an OK, but also not a strong correlation.

What does change people’s behaviour? Lots of things — and that’s the problem. The either/or thinking that permeates the discussion of social media is too often simplistic and driven by an interplay of ideas and values that are not always aligned with the evidence or personal experience.

People tend to change for the following reasons:

1. They have information that tells them there is a threat or a problem with the status quo;

2. Others believe that the behaviour should be changed;

3. The person changing actually cares what other people think;

4. That person has the skills and tools to be able to change;

5. The environment is supportive of change and facilitative (e.g. there are policies, procedures, access to resources — including time);

6. There are more pros to changing than cons (and there are more pros to the strategy of change than the cons);

7. A person actually wants to change (they are self-motivated and not doing things because everyone else thinks they should);

8. A person feels capable of making the change at all.

The more of these elements are present, the more likely the change is going to take place and stick. This is a big list and indicates that change isn’t always straightforward, and it certainly isn’t easy.

The revolution most likely will be Tweeted, but whether that is the cause or the consequence is why research on social media and social activism is needed. Otherwise, we will wind up with another chicken and egg problem.


Chicken, Eggs or Social Eggs?


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