Gladwell and the Laziness of Digital Activism Discourse

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 confe...
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By now, I can’t really keep up with the conversation happening around Malcolm Gladwell’s post on digital activism from Monday (“Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” The New Yorker, 27 September).  I’m a few days late, blame life.  But I still wanted to chime in, because it’s important to me.

My biggest problem with Gladwell’s discussion?  If you know me at all, you’ll guess it.  He focuses way too much on tools and tactics and ignores the role that strategy plays in any form of activism. I’ve talked about the difference between tactics and strategy before, emphasizing the absolute importance of strategy and wondering where all the strategy went.

Additionally, his use of data is very shallow.

Let’s get into a few of the things Gladwell talks about in his post.  The first thing that jumped out at me was:

“Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.”

Not true.  Any smart person I talk to knows it’s not about the tools.  Nobody knowledgable on the space looked at the Iran incident or the Moldovan incident and said “It was Twitter that did it.”  We looked at the larger picture, how Twitter acted as a new way for people to express their voice, how far the reach was etc.  It’s also interesting that he spends so much time talking about the sit-in and fails to acknowledge that it’s the 1960s activists’ equivalent of a tool?  Whether it produced strong-ties, high-risk, or weak ties he spends little time talking about the strategy those activists had, and to me that seems like a gaping hole.

Is there still work to be done in the field? Of course.  One of the problems Malcolm could have talked about was the constant use of anecdotes to describe the digital activism landscape.  That’s one thing that MAP is trying to tackle.

There’s also the implication here that high-risk activism is the only one that results in success:

“What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement….High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon…..But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

Does this mean that the only way to achieve success is through high-risk activism, that somehow, since lives might have been in danger at a much more apparent level in his examples of 1960s activism, it caused more of a fervor which was the only thing that drove people to act (or can drive people to act now)?  Ok, I didn’t know I had to have a life threatening situation to be an activist, or to cause change or to mobilize.

As he focuses on this issue of “ideological fervor” he misses the fervor – albeit of a different type – that was caused worldwide during the Iranian “Twitter Revolution” (for the record, I also disagree with this designation, and chock it up to a case of media sensationalism, but I digress).  He needs fervor?  What about the thousands of people sporting green avators in support of the cause?  While individual emotions might not have been as heightened as if you had a sit in with a direct threat of your face being punched in, the overall, collective emotions could be said to be even more powerful on a different level.

He simply ignores the numbers.

As does his rather direct, but unfair hit, at Clay Shirky (disclaimer, Shirky is on our board at MAP, and because we all have like-minded thinking, it’s natural for me to react to this):

“Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.”

In my opinion, if Gladwell wants to take this stance, he should be working as hard as Shirky is at trying to progress the field of digital activism into more rigorous analysis so that we can compare apples to apples when trying to make broad claims about the virtues or downfalls of social media tools, instead of the apples to oranges approach that Gladwell takes when comparing these two forms of digital activism.  To this end, Mary raises three really good questions on the distinctions that Gladwell is trying to draw in his piece.

I don’t want to dissect Gladwell’s argument much anymore (I could talk about how the 1960s instances he speaks of were carried out on top of very well-established “free spaces” that were available, and still are, to people at that time, and how those types of well-developed spaces and tactics are still being developed online, and yadda yadda yadda).

It really does come down to numbers in many senses.  Gladwell argues correctly that many of the connections made by digital technologytoday are, at the individual level, weaker than the forms of high-risk activism present in the 1960s.  However, what he 1960s didn’t necessarily have was the ability to affect  people across the world, the ability to create a collective ideological fervor that could potentially, with right foundational knowledge and strategy, rival any instance of high-risk activism around.

The Backlash Highlights

There were a lot of responses to this piece, and some of the other points made against Gladwell’s arguments were great:

Over at the Huffington Post (“What Malcolm Gladwell Doesn’t Understand about Social Networks28 Sept), Angus Johnston talked about how the high-risk activism incidents of the pre-internet era led also to the larger scale weak-ties activism that helped champion an entire movement:

“Gladwell is right that strong-tie relationships were a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement, and is a crucial part of any organizing effort. But he misses the fact that all strong ties start as weak ties, and that even weak-tie relationships can spur action within and between strong-tie communities.”

Anil Dash hits the nail on the head (“Make the Revolution,” 28 Sept) when he argues that most of Gladwells problem is not accepting a different type of activism in different times, and that he’s stuck trying to find the activism of the 1960s:

“It wasn’t the birthers or the truthers who earned the nod for helping shape America’s future: It was the makers. Their protests, their sit-ins, take the simple form of making things and sharing them with each other, online and off. The quietness of their ways, the heads-down determination of the scientist instead of the chin-jutting attitude of the street fighter, might make them easy to overlook. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a significant and enduring movement. it doesn’t mean the will of these millions of people doesn’t count, simply because it’s expressed in a way that doesn’t look like protest did five decades ago. Best of all, the people who actually make these things happen aren’t just sitting around clicking “Like” on things online.”

Allison Fine follows nicely (“Malcolm Gladwell Strikes out on Activism,” 28 Sept) by saying flat out that Gladwell doesn’t get activism for precisely the reasons I spoke of above (is the only type of activism high-risk activism? Is that the only way we can ever have success?):

“Activism has come to represent a wide continuum of efforts, voluntary and professional, that, like the tax code I mentioned last week, 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. There will only ever be one civil rights movement, and the every day overuse of the word “movement” (akin to the overuse of the word “gate” to describe political scandal highlighting a true lack of imagination on the party of the “gate”ers.)”

Zeynep Tufekci at Technosociology talked about the difference between how problems are perceived at the local level versus the global level (“What Gladwell Gets Wrong: The Real Problem is Scale Mismatch (Plus, Weak and Strong Ties are Complementary and Supportive),”27 Sept):

“I will make two main points in this post. One, the key issue facing activists who wish for real social change is the mismatch between the scale of our problems (global) and the natural scale of our sociality (local). This is a profound problem and more, not less, social media is almost certainly a key element of any solution. Second, the relationship between weak and strong ties is one of complementarity and support, not one of opposition.”

And so……

Gladwell tells us all,

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

But have we?  Have we really?

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