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Why Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong About Digital Activism

Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell's article in "The New Yorker" about how digital activism is the poorer relation to traditional activism has generated a lot of good debate in the blogosphere.

For those who haven’t had a chance to read the piece, Gladwell’s argument is that we have forgotten what real activism is and that social media and digital activism are poor approximations for traditional protest movements (he relies heavily on the U.S. lunch-counter sit-ins of the 1960s). The crux of his argument is that good, successful activism is due to strong ties, often within hierarchical movements, and bad activism is due to weak ties, like that friend on Facebook who you vaguely remember sitting next to in high school asking you to click “like” on a cause.

Few thoughts:

* My major problem with the piece is the way that Gladwell makes such a clear distinction between traditional activism and digital activism. In fact, the two overlap and complement each other. As Jillian C. York blogged, the two are false poles:

[B]y drawing a distinct line between traditional” and “digital” (or online and offline, if you prefer) activism, pundits and journalists are doing a disservice to both the utility of digital tools and to the resilience of traditional advocacy.

The reality is that these days a good deal of activism will have some kind of digital component. As a label, cyberdissident is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Activists fighting oppressive regimes want to get their messages out and, unlike politicians who tend to fetishise technology, they just want to use the most effective tool, whether that’s a print flyer, a sit-in, or a Facebook group -- or a combination of all of the above.

Take Azerbaijan’s “donkey bloggers”: labeling them digital activists is something of a misnomer. They’re young activists who, because they’re not living in a cave, have chosen to use digital tools to skewer their government. They also do old-world things like meet and rally. They’ve probably even been known to wave a placard now and again. But just because they have chosen to use Facebook and YouTube as weapons of choice, does that make them lazy and ineffective?

Another big distinction Gladwell makes is between networks (weak, ineffective) and hierarchical structures (strong, effective). But the two have coexisted in the past and will continue to coexist. Activism has always had a mix of strong-tie relationships and weak-tie relationships. For instance, to use a Western model, there were the letter writers who met weekly in the church hall (strong ties) and then there were the people in the street who popped a few cents into a collection tin and got a lapel sticker in return (weak ties). To a degree, that dynamic has been recreated online. Nowadays, a few might gather to protest outside an embassy, while many will join a Facebook group. The dynamics of group involvement and the relative importance of various components of those groups were not clearly understood then and are certainly not now.

* As Lina Srivastava writes, the problem with Gladwell’s article -- and in many other critiques of the role of new technologies -- is that he elevates the “digital” as opposed to the “activism.” This makes us focus on the computers rather than what people do with the computers. But I think journalists and digital activists are themselves partly to blame for this fetishizing. Even in our use of “donkey bloggers” or “cyberdissidents” or “Twitter revolution” -- the reader-friendly tags and boilerplates so loved by journalists -- we tend to overemphasize the technology at the expense of the activism. And as people who are enthusiastic about digital activism, we are all too happy to emphasize the technology when something is cool and new and successful.

* The problem with any assessment of the impact of digital technologies is that, as the excellent report “Blogs And Bullets” points out, the evidence is still fragmentary and we are reliant on anecdote and intuition. Twitter, after all, is only four years old and it’s just too early to measure impact (it was always difficult to measure the impact of traditional activism as well). So articles or essays -- whether they be cyberutopian or cyberskeptic, to use the two extremes -- tend to trot out the same anecdotes again and again. In the cyberutopian camp, we have the open-source crowdsourcing project Ushahidi and the FARC protests in Colombia. And in the cyberskeptics camp, we have the critiques of the role played by social media in Moldova and Iran. It's just too early to know.

Iran now has become synonymous with the failure of social media (and there’s no doubt that Twitter’s significance was hugely exaggerated). My colleague, Persian Letters blogger Golnaz Esfandiari was quoted in the Gladwell piece, as she wrote a good article last year rightfully playing down Twitter’s role in the postelection unrest. So the reader might conclude that Iranians aren’t using social-networking tools at all in order to bring change to their country, but as Golnaz just blogged today, Iran's opposition continues to use Facebook for campaigning (they’re also launching a newspaper).

Gladwell, like any gifted writer, is selective about his juxtaposition of anecdotes. The civil-rights movement is the mother of all anecdotes: it has everything, bravery, drama, a shared sense of moral clarity. That noble example is juxtaposed next to a few platitudes a U.S. official makes at a conference and a wild claim that Twitter be nominated for a Nobel Prize. Not exactly comparing like with like.

(As a side note, there’s a common implication in any article on “clicktavism” or “slacktavism” that traditional activism is always presented as utterly selfless, noble, and involving ultimate sacrifices, unlike the kids of today with their fancy-pants phones and their lattes and their narcissism.)

* Throughout the article, I kept thinking -- and I don't want to get all Clay Shirky here -- wouldn't digital technology make that more effective. Those brave Greensboro protesters would still have sat at the counter, but couldn’t their cause be broadcast more quickly through social media? Couldn’t the offline activities of the committed core be amplified to a critical point by the weak-tied masses (those of us clicking “like” and changing our avatars)? Gladwell’s argument is that it wouldn’t be, that we would be deterred from physically protesting because we had made an online “sacrifice,” but there just isn’t any compelling evidence to support either thesis. Or, while we’re doing counterfactuals, imagine the Montgomery bus boycott organized through Twitter and geo-location tools. There might have even been an app for that, written by some open-source whizz kid. Find the nearest car pool by logging in with your location-based phone. More flexibility and better organization could have meant a much larger number taking part.

Ultimately, Gladwell’s mistake is that he focuses on Revolutions rather than revolutions. The former are extremely rare but the latter are thankfully more common. We are so preoccupied with overthrowing governments and regime change, that we risk overlooking the incremental benefits that digital activism can bring everyday. (A hazing video in Armenia goes viral and leads to an officer’s conviction. A Russian blogger’s harrowing account of the state of a regional hospital trickles up into state-run media.) No, it’s not regime change, but it’s undoubtedly making a difference.