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—I 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 350.org’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.