Originally published at BostInnovation in October 2010 as “Will the Revolution Be Tweeted? Gladwell Says No, Ignites Debate”
I came across Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” on Facebook. I bookmarked the page because I didn’t have time to read it right then.
Every time I saw some mention of the essay on Facebook or Twitter, I resisted the urge to re-share the link or respond to friends’ comments. I reminded myself, “You haven’t read the essay yet. Read it first, see what you think, then share it and comment if you have something new to say.”
When this kind of self-talk around information gathering and social behavior is necessary, you know you’re living in an interesting time.
Nine whole days after it first flew across the Internet, I finally got a chance to sit down and read the essay. When I did, I kept wishing I had printer ink so I could print it out, read it in peace, and not be bothered by The New Yorker’s new annoying pop-up ads.
As a social media enthusiast and offline community organizer to boot, I immediately felt threatened by Gladwell’s essay before I even read it. What if he called me out? What if he called me out in a way I couldn’t imagine because I’ve been too busy reading tons of articles and not spending nearly enough time with people and books?! That’s essentially what he did. I was right to feel a little scared.
In short, Gladwell challenges the assumption that online organizing falls under the category of true social activism and then tells us why it matters. He makes a useful distinction between the social activism of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s—for example, organized lunch counter sit-ins and demonstrations in which people risked their lives—and online network building via Facebook and Twitter, two very helpful communication tools. He explains how potentially transformative, high-risk social activism relies on strong personal ties and hierarchical organizational structures in order to be successful. And he argues that social media platforms rely on weak ties that tend to create large, loose networks of people who then have a tough time organizing strategically in order to collectively drive real social change.
Perhaps his most provocative claim is this: “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” I’m still not sure whether or not I agree with him.
Allison Fine, social media guide and co-author of The Networked Nonprofit, wrote an interesting critical response to Gladwell in a blog post she called “Malcolm Gladwell Strikes Out on Activism.” Fine reminds us that “all of the successful social efforts in the connected age happen both online and on land” and says she wishes Gladwell had found and shared examples of such efforts. She’s right, but Gladwell’s point wasn’t that there aren’t successful examples of organized communities both online and offline. I think he’s asking us to think about just how many organizations make a point of mobilizing community members both offline and online (not enough) and how many groups find themselves able to organize across their respective networks online and offline in order to make meaningful change possible.
As for Gladwell’s claim about largely empty “Facebook activism,” Fine reminds us that social media tools allow organizations to connect with all kinds of different people: large numbers of people who only lightly engage with a cause and “successive, smaller numbers of people who then choose to engage in deeper, more meaningful ways.” What’s revealing to me are the examples Fine offers us of deeper, more meaningful demonstrations of activism: “commenting on blogs, self organizing events, raising money.”
I comment on blogs, organize events, and work to raise money all the time. None of these activities demand that I put myself personally on the line for a cause I believe in. They are things I can do on my own time, in the comfort of my own home even, and rarely do they ever shake me up or challenge me to get way out of my comfort zone. They feel nothing like the handful of times I’ve marched on Washington or attended public rallies for a cause that makes me feel vulnerable.
I don’t agree with everything Gladwell says in “Small Change.” I definitely don’t agree with his suggestion that people who take the time to login to Facebook and Twitter can’t possibly be the kind of leaders we need right now. But instead of quickly deciding that he’s struck out with this particular essay, that he’s gotten it so wrong, I’d rather sit with it for a while and let it sink in. My guess is that social activism and social networking need each other, people in both groups need to begin working together more, and Gladwell has moved this whole conversation a few giant leaps forward. He’s not entirely right, not necessarily wrong. He’s asking good questions that maybe we can’t answer just yet and getting us to think about what community really means. Good for him.