Welcome to the debate, Malcolm

Malcolm Gladwell's article "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted," revisits an argument it seems like we in the activism community have been having for quite a while. While it can only be good to open the debate up to the masses who read the New Yorker, Gladwell misses the target. In the debate on digital activism, Gladwell and most commentators on `social media for social action' elevate the "digital" as opposed to the "activism." Digital tools are now a permanent part of our toolkit (whether we're managing discrete actions, campaigns or movements), and can be leveraged effectively whenever they are appropriate and accessible. Sometimes they're necessary to a campaign and sometimes they are not (particularly where their use would jeopardize the safety of the activists or the viability of the campaign). But that's it. They're tools.

Gladwell's distinction between hierarchical vs. decentralized movements is a very necessary one-- but the claim that all offline activism is centralized while all campaigns that rely on digital tools are ad hoc and without direction, is a rather sweeping and strange argument. All campaigns within a movement require strategy and stewardship, through communications structures that are either horizontal or vertical. Again, the tools might allow for new forms of communications which help create flatter campaigns-- but thinking that successful online campaigns don't have centralizing nodes is a bit naive. Furthermore, despite his exploration of social movements, Gladwell's dismissal of decentralized networks as automatically ineffective can't have taken into consideration examples of the communications networks that underpinned historical wide-sweeping movements like the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, The Underground Railroad, or the network of safe houses for Jews in WWII. (And anyway, isn't there some truth that those of us who try to organize campaigns hope that elements will in fact decentralize and embed to become cultural norms?)

By continuing to argue the merits of "twitter activism," I think we're all now starting to miss the point. 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.


Saoirse, freedom4saoirse@gmail.com said...

Lina, thank you for your beautiful blog. I hope to have a chance to dig deeper into it in the future. I'm not sure how my comment fits into the discussion, but here goes anyway.

Many civil rights activists in the 1960s were subjected to covert warfare by our government, which used various PSYOP tactics against them. One was social extermination through strenuous campaigns to slander people out of positions of influence and other social roles, such as that of the active church member, the productively employed citizen, etc.  Back then, it was illegal. You perhaps remember the Congressional hearings in 1974 that exposed this illegal COINTELPRO by our CIA. In 1989, NYU professor and attorney Brian Glick found that the program, which Congress assured the public would be discontinued in the 1976 report on the '74 hearings, had been in full operation in the 1980s, against activists helping refugees fleeing U.S.-backed civil wars in Central America, some of whom were Glick's clients.

These programs now are not only all LEGAL they've been supplemented by many more laws and the military's adoption of technologies that literally destroy private thought - and, therefore, private speech and the associations they can create.  That "strong-tie" phenomenon Gladwell speaks of is obliterated in this covert warfare, which is conducted right here by the Joint Forces. The gov't has obviously been aware of the research Gladwell has given us in his article for quite some time.

I live this hell every day. Millions of Americans do. George Bush promised (when he created his propaganda machine, the office of global communications) that covert warfare against anyone and everyone who dissented against the (for example) police state which our country has become (www.dontfearyourfreedom.blogspot.com) would never end, and I have to tell you, it's a promise the Commander-in-Chief has kept, no matter what his name or skin color have been.

Is my 10 minutes of tapping out this comment on my iPhone effective activism? If you read it - if I am allowed to post it, so you and others can see it and even learn more at the link above - is that activism? I'll still be typing my random comments somewhere else tomorrow, building no community, no strong ties, not even doing the real work I feel I must do to be an ACTIVE-ist, just the way my government wants it, because they know the answers to these questions: no.

I have no ability to use a phone freely, my email, to join activists in other groups, be it at my former church, or anywhere else, or to start my own group without support and backing. There are many reasons for this, but the objective of each battle strategy in use against me is the same: a virtual prison.

That's why, instead of sitting down in the front of the bus, I stood up when the bus driver threatened to have me arrested because I pushed back when he tried to portray me to my fellow passengers (many of whom were my neighbors)  as a racist, elitist and even godless social  malcontent with a very carefully orchestrated PSYOP, street theater. Did you know the military uses public transportation in their covert war? It's true. There's even a department that coordinates it. He didn't have me arrested (surprise, surprise), and their little PSYOP wasn't at all successful because I kept my cool and acted fearlessly, with alacrity and confidence. Wish all such of my protests turned out that all way.

So all I can say is your work is great for those who have First Amendment rights. For the rest of us, not so much. Wonder why Gladwell didn't mention that.

Unknown said...

Hey Lina, I love your response to Gladwell and I'm right there with you: to understand what's going on, we should start from the social movements and look at communication tools and practices, not the other way round :) Here's my take: http://diy2.usc.edu/wordpress/?p=99


Alexa said...

Thanks for this post. I agree with you.

Malcolm Gladwell is in the business of chewing up elegant meals and spitting them out in the form of cheap pasta with margarine.

He's based a career on identifying complex issues he knows little about, and translating them into oversimplified and usually irrelevant analogies. The Tipping Point was okay, but everything since that has been downhill.

When I saw that he finally decided to chew up my area of expertise, I could barely get through the article, especially when I saw that he started with Greensboro, a community in which I've done several media projects and where I have ongoing relationships.

Thank you for your assessment. I wish a major site or news source would pick it up.

Unknown said...

Surely the point is, as the article explicitly states, that the message is more important than the medium - and this is my understanding of Gladwell's point. Too many people see social media as the revolution, or as the way to push tue revolution. If anything, social media makes the presence of compelling content and argument even more important to actually motivate people into action. Sharing a link on Twitter, liking something on Facebook or writing a comment on a blog does not constitute revolutionary action - it might spread the argument, but unless that argument galvanises people into action, it's just talk.

Saoirse, freedom4saoirse@gmail.com said...

Right on, Shane. And look at this series of posts -- none of us is talking with each other, we're just reacting to what Lina posted, who's only reacting to what Malcolm posted. This particular platform reminds me of several Greek choruses, all shouting over each other. It's crazy making, not dialogue making.

Lina Srivastava said...

Thanks so much, everyone, for your comments and for continuing the dialogue. As we are all saying, digital tools and social media are accelerators to activism, not the activism itself. I'm not sure why Gladwell -- for all that he's a critical observer, he's not an activist or professional in the for-benefit sector -- has entered the field now, when activists have been debating this for year and have moved on to a more nuanced debate. But as we can see, it's still an active and lively debate.