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It’s Not Your Father’s Revolution: Gladwell Gets an Online Earful

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Last week the interwebs [read sarcasm] burned up with chatter about Malcolm Gladwell‘s New Yorker article “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”

Gladwell sets the stage for his argument by first recounting the story of four young men who sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and asked for a cup of coffee. If this story sounds familiar, it should. It’s the famous Greensboro sit-in that became part of a growing Civil Rights movement to desegregate the south. Gladwell continues that this sit-in and the movement it was a part of took place without the aid of Twitter or Facebook.

“…we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

Gladwell spends the rest of the article trying to deflate the importance of social media in contemporary activism. He asserts that strong ties are necessary for activism and social media is not about strong ties, but rather weak ties.

“The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, as you never could in real life.”

So essentially, Gladwell is arguing that social media isn’t capable of sustaining “real activism.”

This is where the cadre of nonprofit social media bloggers, tweeters and gurus take him to task.

Allison Fine, co-author of the Networked Nonprofit, begins her response by challenging Gladwell’s definition of activism:

“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. Activism has come to represent a wide continuum of efforts, voluntary and professional…cannot all fit neatly under one umbrella. The term activism has come to include society changing social movements, political advocacy, and acts of loving kindness, like giving clothes or food to people in need. Gladwell lumps all activism into the social movement category.

Social movement are intense, long-term efforts developed by a core of people and then spread widely because of the moral indignation that galvanizes them…And that’s it, all of the other “movements” since have been advocacy or awareness campaigns (think climate change, recycling, drunk driving, breast cancer) to raise money or change public policy. or direct service efforts like feeding the hungry. They amount to a series of campaigns with very specific, intended outcomes. They are not social movements.

I think that’s a good point. Trying to define all activism as having a specific type of outcome is too restrictive and doesn’t recognize the different types of social change activists are striving for.

And on the topic of strong ties vs. weak ties, Lina Srivastava had this to say:

“The way a campaign engages empathizers, influencers and activists– whether based on what Gladwell notes as weak or strong ties– is really more a matter of strategy– issue identification, context, methodology, desired action, outcome, etc. Use and application of digital tools is a tactical concern– important, but not the endpoint. And so Gladwell creates a false distinction when he claims it is the nature of the tool that creates strong or weak ties. I would argue it’s the content and the context that determines and strengthen ties. The medium is not the message here.”

Beth Kanter agrees, it’s not the tool that creates weak ties, “stories or people do.”

But aside from arguing how to define activism or what creates a strong tie&#151I have to wonder, why does Gladwell think activism exists in a vacuum? That how it’s executed can’t evolve?

Clearly we can all agree that how we communicate has greatly evolved since the 1960s thanks to cell phones, the internet and yes…social media.

Tech blogger Anil Dash explains:

The problem with Gladwell’s premise, though, is that it’s wildly anachronistic to think that the only way to effect social change is to assemble a sign-wielding mob to inhabit a public space…People who want to see marches in the streets are often unwilling to admit that those marches just don’t produce much in the way of results in America in 2010.

However: There are revolutions, actual political and legal revolutions, that are being led online. They’re just happening in new ways, and taking subtle forms unrecognizable to those who still want a revolution to look like they did in 1965.

Want a good example of contemporary activism using social media? Just last week I blogged about’s world-wide day of protest.

Take a look at those images from around the world and then tell me that social media isn’t capable of sustaining “real activism” (whatever that means) or that “we’ve forgotten what activism is.”

No, I think the point is, activism isn’t in a static state. It’s evolving. Like the activists themselves. And to try and discredit the tools used by contemporary activists just because their efforts look different from past activism, is a little like requiring the present to live in the past. And if I recall, the whole idea behind many of the great social movements that Gladwell referenced was that the past was holding us back as a society, that society needed to change.


Read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article online.

Read Anil Dash’s response online.

Read Allison Fine’s response online.

Read Beth Kanter’s response online.

Read Lina Srivastava’s response online.

Participatory Philanthropy: The Wisdom of Crowds

Friday, October 1st, 2010

We know, thanks to the good folks at the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, that only 4 out of 10 individuals can name a foundation and only 1 in 10 can give an example of a foundation’s impact on an issue they care about.


That last number stings a bit. Especially knowing there are 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S. alone. You’d think the people working there, those who are on the front lines working with foundations, might be able to give an example of a foundation’s impact.

Why do I bring all this up?

I bring this all up because, like many people out there, I’ve come across Jane Wales‘ piece in Huffington Post. Her blog post/article “If you Want an Answer, ask Everyone: The Rise of Crowd-Source Grantmaking” made the rounds over the philanthropy twitterverse earlier this week and per the following tweet even came up at the Communications Network and CommA Conference going on presently in Los Angeles:

Does using the wisdom of crowds challenge the power structure in philanthropy? #comnet010

What Exactly is Crowdsourcing?

According to Zoetic co-founder Geoff Livingston, “crowdsourcing is literally and simply empowering your community to do specific tasks without the organization, but on behalf of the organization, through active management.”

Take the example of, an international campaign working to raise awareness about climate change. Leading up to last year’s United Nations climate change conference decided to hold a demonstration. But instead of using traditional methods to get the word out (printing flyers, sending out letters), they put the word out via social media.

The response was phenomenal.

Using their social network, inspired 5,200 demonstrations and rallies in 180 countries world wide–with all the rallies centering on the number 350 (350 refers to the safe upper limit for parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere).

By allowing everyday people and activists to organize and create their own demonstration/rally was able to:

* create some significant buzz in the news about their issue, especially since there were so many events world-wide and striking visuals embodying their message; and

* give their supporters a sense of ownership that translates into feeling like they are a part of’s movement, which can translate in future passionate support for their cause and their organization (including financial).

I think the biggest lesson crowdsourcing offers is that when an organization gives up some control by allowing outside supporters to assist in their cause, the end result is far greater than what the organization could have accomplished on its own.

In’s case it encouraged outsiders (that is people not working at their organization as staff) to organize their own events instead of having’s staff coordinate all those world-wide demonstrations. And do you honestly think one organization’s staff could have coordinated over 5,000 events like that?

Perhaps, yes. But what’s amazing about those events is the diversity of expression. How the individuals personalized not only the event, but the cause itself. And I would argue that no amount of money or hard work could produce that much warm fuzzy feeling (that’s the technical name for it) as that crowdsourcing venture did.

What’s All This Got To Do With Philanthropy?

Ah…now we return to the article in Huffington Post. For you see, grantmakers are beginning to experiment with crowdsourcing.

Take the Case Foundation. Their Make It Your Own Award is something the foundation calls “open grantmaking”:

open-grantmaking…a variant of what [Case] calls “participatory philanthropy” — that [seeks] to increase civic engagement in locations throughout the country by involving the public in the decision-making process.”

Using open grantmaking Case allows the public to determine grant guidelines, judging criteria, review the applications and even vote on the winners.

In their report Citizen-Centered Solutions: Lessons in Leveraging Public Participation from the Make It Your Own Awards the Case Foundation explains how through open grantmaking “residents in several Florida neighborhoods are working together to identify and take action in addressing environmental problems; [and] a youth-led initiative in Philadelphia is helping young people in the juvenile justice and foster care systems to reintegrate into their communities.”

Participatory philanthropy engages the community by tapping into their expertise (which is often that they know themselves better than an outside organization could) and gives the community ownership and accountability over the grantmaking initiatives.

Does Participatory Grantmaking Put Grantmakers Out Of A Job?

Maybe you’re thinking about that tweet I mentioned at the beginning of this post:

Does using the wisdom of crowds challenge the power structure in philanthropy? #comnet010

When I saw that tweet two thoughts came to mind:

  1. I interpreted “power structure” as the current dynamic between funders and nonprofits, whereby the funders make the decision about where the grant money goes; and
  2. I thought that by challenging that power structure, crowdsourcing would re-distribute power [read agency], thereby redefining roles for both funders, nonprofits and community members.

It’s a simple idea with big ramifications.

Do I think participatory philanthropy will replace how philanthropy is currently practiced?

I don’t know. But it does raise some interesting questions to consider. And if you reflect on how everyday communications have evolved because of social media, it makes sense that philanthropy would begin to evolve and be influenced by social media.

If anything, it would be interested to see if grantmakers add this type of philanthropy to their quiver, to see funders experiment with crowdsourcing to enhance their grantmaking. And it would be interesting to see how the relationship between the public and foundations would change through this type of grantmaking.

Which brings me back to what the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative calls the “Philanthropy’s Awareness Deficit.”

Remember those statistics at the top of this very long blog post?

Only 4 out of 10 individuals can name a foundation and only 1 in 10 can give an example of a foundation’s impact on an issue they care about.

I bet those community members working with the Case Foundation can not only name a foundation, but can give you a concrete example of how a foundation makes an impact on an issue they care about. And for those of us in philanthropy interested in raising awareness about how the field impacts communities, crowdsourcing is a useful tool to consider.


Read “If you Want an Answer, ask Everyone:” The Rise of Crowd-Source Grantmaking online.

Read Mashable’s 5 Trends Shaping the Future of Social Good online.

Read the Case Foundation’s Citizen-Centered Solutions: Lessons in Leveraging Public Participation from the Make It Your Own Awards online.


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