And they didn't even have Twitter, just classical nudity and a shit ton of muskets...
By this point Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece Small Change, with its bound-to-be provocative subtitle Why the revolution will not be tweeted has gotten plenty of the desired attention. Much of it ironically (and no doubt intentionally) on Twitter itself.
Gladwell jumps around from topic to topic to build a case, essentially that "social media can't provide what social change has always required;" that new media is no replacement for old-style organization and activism. In fact, he goes further, attempting to debunk the so-called Twitter Revolutions (in Moldavia and Iran) and assert that the medium is in fact, not inherently revolutionary. The crux goes something like 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.
Many of the responses, as one might guess, have been critical, sometimes scathingly so.
Honestly, I think both Gladwell's view and that of the "slacktivism" (not a term I like, but it'll do) advocates could use a strong dose of reality. Both dismiss too readily in favor of their own already-decided-upon stories (new media has changed everything/no, it's damaging something good that was already there). There is a lot ignored in online activism and several of Gladwell's critiques are absolutely on point, but there are some real new, useful tools here, and his piece does ignore some real uses.
More, below the cut.
Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?
The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy. The Montgomery bus boycott required the participation of tens of thousands of people who depended on public transit to get to and from work each day. It lasted a year. In order to persuade those people to stay true to the cause, the boycott’s organizers tasked each local black church with maintaining morale, and put together a free alternative private carpool service, with forty-eight dispatchers and forty-two pickup stations. Even the White Citizens Council, King later said, conceded that the carpool system moved with “military precision.” By the time King came to Birmingham, for the climactic showdown with Police Commissioner Eugene (Bull) Connor, he had a budget of a million dollars, and a hundred full-time staff members on the ground, divided into operational units. The operation itself was divided into steadily escalating phases, mapped out in advance. Support was maintained through consecutive mass meetings rotating from church to church around the city.
The power of traditional organizing, especially the importance of a working hierarchy to deal with serious conflict is something that gets glossed over far too often in favor of a bullshit narrative in which social movements magically come together, wave signs and change — something often seen as more about finding yourself than actually winning battles — occurs overnight. This didn't begin with "slacktivism," but the trend generally embraces an unhealthy amount of the narrative, and much of the technorati Gladwell takes aim at love themselves some leaderless change.
Gladwell's also right to highlight that there's nothing inherently beneficial to rebellion in these tools. One of the key moments, for me, at the Gov 2.0 summit was when the tech-savvy Republican Rep. John Culbertson took the stage, proudly proclaimed his allegiance to the oil companies and trumpeted the use of social media to kill the "trash" of the health care bill. The number of shocked faces — as people realized that their opponents might use the same tools — was priceless.
Honorable mention in the "Gladwell's right" category goes to the sharpened razor of a sentence "A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls." Anytime much of the technorati's ignorance of the very real divides of class gets highlighted, I'm a happy man.
At the same time, the decay of protest movements (in the US especially) started way before social media and has a number of diverse causes (aforementioned "it happens by magic" illusion amongst them). I don't agree with Anil Dash that Gladwell mistakes protest movements only with sign-waving — he specifically goes into what a multi-faceted effort things like the Montgomery Bus Boycott were — but by the same token, his keen understanding of the oft-ignored role of organizational hierarchy in social change isn't accompanied by a broader outlook of the context in which it takes place.
Gladwell fails to see that social media doesn't take place in a vacuum; his division between "hierarchy" and "networks" is neat to the point of fantasy. The two have always overlapped. Even the most rigidly hierarchical organizations have more dispersed networks from which they draw support.
Gladwell's right to drub the dubbing of Iran's Green movement a "Twitter Revolution," but, again, his distinctions are too neat. In actuality, Twitter was a very small part of it, complemented by everything from political organizing to Basij-hunting street gangs. However, it was a helpful part, acting in Iran as a mini-nervous system to connect organizers that could then rally larger groups of non-tech savvy people while simultaneously (because many of the tweets were in English, a language plenty of Iranians have some grasp of) getting notice from Westerners who might ignore brutal repression in another country in the absence of a fancy new technology.
By the same token reporters like Andrew Sullivan and Nico Pitney, while giving plenty of play to the information they were receiving over Twitter, repeatedly cautioned readers to realize that it was raw and unreliable, and quickly sought expert opinion as well as more detailed information from Iranians themselves. Gladwell ignores this outright, and while his shots at some of the more ardent evangelists are a welcome tonic, he wrongly pigeonholes those like Sullivan or Pitney that still use plenty of older methods alongside the new into the same camp.
Actually, most anyone using social media, myself included, probably knows a fair number of our online "friends;" some very closely, some as acquaintances. But, thanks to social media, it's a lot easier to maintain connections when they move to another city, for example, or break the initial ice with someone online or, for that matter, turn an in-person introduction into a longer discussion.
Social media is becoming a fact of life for many, in conjunction, not opposition to, all the myriad existing forms of communication. I've yet to see a single major critic really appreciate that fact.
Politically, this means that social media (can) provide more organized movements with a ready pool of potential recruits or donors, connections that begin as weak can be strengthened by the more old-fashioned methods Gladwell reveres. Even weak ties that don't come any closer to the fray can act as eyes and ears for information, or to distribute a message to a few of their friends. That's not nothing, and its impact can, used correctly, be significant.
However, that cannot happen without more of the traditional activism Gladwell highlights. Right now, few movements have really made full use of that combination (the '08 Obama campaign came close, but may have been a temporary example), in part because of the ill-advised dismissal of older methods and a too-rosy view of the new. Some of Gladwell's critics could stand to learn the same lesson he needs: the future belongs not to the new or the old, but to the hybrid.