New Orleans In this moment of social network ascendancy we are being bombarded by the presumed power of even the flimsiest connections. We are asked to click a “like,” retweet a comment, get linked to various networks, hit a button for a petition, and forward an email to someone or another. Buy something on a site, and you’re asked to trumpet it on social media presumably so your purchase for whatever reason might act as a shiny lure attracting someone you know well or marginally in their own life stream. Meanwhile all of these actions, large or small, are packaged and sold by sundry companies trying to chart the path of our digital footprints from all of these transactions.
Decades ago my friend and colleague, Joel Rogers, professor of almost everything at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, introduced me to the political theory that focused on the strength of weak links. I had been marveling at the way the almost tiny central body of the AFL-CIO in the smallish Plains and Panhandle city of Amarillo, Texas, was still able to speak for the working class there while commanding some capacity and political voice despite their small membership and distance, if not estrangement, from the rest of organized labor in the state and nation. They had weak links indeed, but as the active and legitimized voice of labor, they also had strength.
The strength of weak links has always been my touchstone in understanding the influence and perhaps the power of social networks. In the absence and alienation of other ties, these links, no matter how fragile, perform with some level of strength.
When it comes to organization though we are now more often mobilized rather than organized. The meaning of membership even begins to be increasingly diluted in many organizations as variable donations distort the meaning of membership dues in the eyes of some organizers and activists.
All of this came to mind as I quickly flipped through the local newspaper. While breezing through the final pages of the first section without even reading the obituaries that now find their home there, something caught my eye, long trained in an almost Pavlovian way to see the word, “ACORN,” whenever it crops up. I stopped and focused, and, sure enough, there it was in the obit of Lemealue Lewis Robinson, celebrating her long life and mourning her passing, her family, her many activities, her church, and then in a separate paragraph saying,
“Mrs. Robinson was also a member of Louisiana ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), and a helpful neighbor, seeking to encourage and assist anyone who wanted to better their situation.”
This isn’t unusual either. It shows up on my Google alerts regularly, and a month doesn’t pass by in my hometown without such a mention. All of this serves as a reminder of the importance of ACORN in the lives of our members and more significantly the immense value of their membership to them personally as part of the highlight reel of their lives. What few understand, or perhaps resist, is coming to grips with the unique strength that an organization forges with strong ties, rather than weak ones. Maybe some leaders and organizers are intimidated about building this level of loyalty and the accountability and stewardship it demands, when the attachment and dedicated of the members goes from shallow to substantive and profound? I don’t know? I do know it’s hard to build, but I also know once those links are welded like steel, the strength those ties create surpass pushing back to allow us all to forge forward.