Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted Essay Format

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Gladwell Is Right. The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.

by Jason Falls | October 25, 2010

You could almost hear the brows furling across the Twitterverse the day Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change” article appeared on The New Yorker’s website Oct. 4. Many fired off a defiant comment without getting beyond the essay’s sub-heading, “Why the revolution will not be Tweeted.” The reaction rippled through Twitter in what many social media passionistas perhaps thought was evidence Gladwell was wrong. They had become activists against the popular author.

Unfortunate as it is, many of the neo-Gladwell haters never read the piece, nor did they see what he was trying to say. They are, after all, the 140-character set. I’ve yet to see anything Gladwell writes be less than five jump pages on the New Yorker site. He’s an essayist and author. The haters, comparatively, have technological Tourette Syndrome. Twitter front man Biz Stone even defended social networks in an Atlantic Monthly piece that, while positioned as a counterpoint, seemed whiny and defensive.

But even Stone missed the point. Gladwell was simply pointing out, in his well-researched and inquisitive style, that networks are systems of weak ties. Hierarchies are systems of strong ones. True revolution, true activism is life-or-death for all involved, not just one imprisoned Chinese writer or Wall Street financier’s girlfriend’s cell phone. Networks are phenomenal structures for disseminating information, but inefficient at calling people to true action. Gladwell’s point was that while networks are awesome at asking people to raise their hand to say they care, they don’t have the offline, reality check of asking people to take a bullet.

Networks are passive motivators. If it doesn’t cost me much time, money or energy, I’ll “Like” your cause on Facebook. I’ll retweet your plea to sign a petition. I’ll perhaps even donate a few bucks to clean up oily pelicans.

But weak ties won’t motivate people to stand in front of a moving tank, defy a government known to kill those that do or surrender a kidney for a complete stranger.

Gladwell’s tome wasn’t an attack on social networking. It was merely an attempt to bring a sense of reality to the over-inflated sense of import we give it. This isn’t to say social networks aren’t powerful or meaningful or cannot help facilitate revolution, activism and social change. They can. But they help facilitate it, not drive it.

Social media are communications channels, not power structures. The hierarchy of order that produced the civil rights movement may have been helped by social media, but it would have (and did) happen without it, too. If China is to become a democratic state one day, it won’t be because us Westerners pestered Beijing with Tweets of their injustices. It will be the result of an organization of citizens rally together and stand for their rights. Or worse, have to fight for them. Sure, Facebook messages may be the carrier pigeons, but carrier pigeons don’t win wars.

Similarly, weak ties are not responsible for movements in marketing. The Pepsi Refresh Project is coordinated through social media (the channel) but is a movement because the causes generate benefit to the off-line, real world. Without the Internet, it would still work. Maker’s Mark Ambassadors are members of a vibrant, engaged community that existed off-line before it ever had an online sandbox. Lego enthusiasts who meet virtually are weakly connected. The moment they meet and share the real experience, then social marketing takes roots.

I’ve long said at some point the pendulum will swing back and people will realize it’s the offline, face-to-face relationships that are meaningful. Brands that find ways to move their online (weak tie) communities offline (strong tie), are the ones that will win in the long run.

Malcolm Gladwell just took 4,350 more words to say it.

Related articles

Full article:
"Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted"
28 Sep 2010
The New Yorker
Malcomn Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell, author of articles and books like 'The Tipping Point' and 'Blink', has contributed a thought-provoking analysis into the relative strengths and weaknesses of face-to-face vs. online activism. While others resort to shallow and hypocritical dismissals of online activism as 'clicktivism' (including dismissing 'marketing' while marketing himself to promote his book), Malcolm's critique takes on over exuberant journalists and pundits who proclaim that Twitter and Facebook activism is the 'new activism' and ignore how activism really achieves real change.

In addition to the scrutiny e-campaigning requires to stay relevant, the article also implicitly provides ideas for how organised e-campaigning - the type most organisations engage in - can be focused to achieve the greatest campaigning impact and what value social media has in that context. While he doesn't explicitly deal with the email-to-action model of campaigning, the model that is the dominant model for organised e-campaigning, the principles he lays out can be applied to this model as well. However there is extensive criticism of Gladwell's critique  that he doesn't understand the potential of social media and that he knows little about activism.

Below are some key quotes from his article and my commentary and...but do read the original article too!

Updated: I've added the various criticism of Gladwell's article as comments and links to others' critiques.

Have we forgotten what activism is?

"Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history [the civil rights movement], we seem to have forgotten what activism is."

While the US civil rights struggle extraordinary, so was (and is) activism around the world and dating back centuries: Anti-slavery Suffragette, Ghandi, Anti-Apartheid, etc.

The dominance of one-way broadcast media after World War II ushered in an activism increasingly dominated by an attempt to influence change via press released and media coverage. The emergence of the Internet has challenged that dominance, but many people continue to cling to the fundamental assumption of this period: that publicity is sufficient for change. Ut usually isn't. Local, face-to-face activism is still fundamental for dramatically increasing the potential for real sustained change. Digital channels provide ways to facilitate and coordinate local activism and their usage is still in its infancy.

What stimulates high-risk activism?

"Activism that challenges the status quo - that attacks deeply rooted problems - is not for the faint of heart.

What makes people capable of this kind of activism? [...] What mattered more was an applicant's degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. [...] participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism is a "strong-tie" phenomenon."

Basically real social networks: people you know well, trust and are in close contact with. These have been fundamental to human society for hundreds of thousands of years so there should be no surprise here. Social network's aren't new and online social networks are a poor substitute.

This observation suggests that local groups are a highly strategic and powerful force for achieving an impact, especially in high-risk situations. While high-risk activism is now rarer in many G7 countries thanks to the high risk activism of decades and centuries past, it is still very common and necessary in most of the world as you probably know.

The implication for campaigning organisations is that they need to continue to support local groups of campaigners to connect and organise in both G7 countries and other countries around the world. A primary purpose of online organising should be to facilitate and enhance this - not replace it.

Social media activism has a tiny impact

"The kind of activism associated with social media isn't like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties."

Gladwell proposes that social media campaigns can achieve things, but not large scale changes. Like the broadcast media, social media can bring attention to a specific issue for a very limited time and result in a minor breakthrough, but Gladwell doesn't see social media campaigns as high-risk.

Yet there are growing numbers of exceptions:

  1. Blogging about torture and human rights in Egypt and other places is high-risk and has resulted in some change. It has both put people at risk and has also reduced the risks of people imprisoned or threatened.
  2. Tweeting "I'm being arrested" in a country with poor human rights record has helped ensure people don't disappear without trace.
  3. There are probably other example you can share too (please do!!)

Yet significant social media campaigning is low-risk, low commitment and low engagement. As Gladwell puts it:

"Social networks are effective at increasing participation-by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. [...] 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."

Top-down organising is still necessary

"The students who joined the sit-ins across the [US] South during the winter of 1960 described the movement as a "fever." But the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion."

Networks and 'going-viral' have been in-vogue in the last decade and beyond. Gladwell uses historical evidence to claim that networks are necessary but insufficient for high-risk challenges to the status-quo. For example:

"In the [US Civil Right movement in the] late nineteen-fifties, there had been:

  • sixteen sit-ins in various cities throughout the South, fifteen of which were formally organized by civil-rights organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and CORE.
  • Possible locations for activism were scouted.
  • Plans were drawn up.
  • Movement activists held training sessions and retreats for would-be protesters.

The Greensboro Four were a product of this groundwork: all were members of the N.A.A.C.P. Youth Council. They had close ties with the head of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. They had been briefed on the earlier wave of sit-ins in Durham, and had been part of a series of movement meetings in activist churches.

When the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South, it did not spread indiscriminately. It spread to those cities which had pre-existing "movement centers" - a core of dedicated and trained activists ready to turn the "fever" into action."

A recent example of this in a different context was the Obama Campaign for US President: it was the local organisers and supporters who made the real difference and online tools were used to connect, enhance and engage these groups.

And yet social media is network oriented and very difficult to organise and direct, as Gladwell observes:

"the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization.

Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren't controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations."

So it isn't that social media and networks are not appropriate for campaigning, they are just best suited to low-risk situations.

The implications of this are:

  • in addition to keeping local groups, keep providing leadership for them: organise them
  • use social media for what it is well suited for: low-risk campaigning which may itself help attract supporters who may be willing to engage in high-risk campaigning

"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."

In fact, many organisations - especially faith-based organisations - already have a more powerful channel to organising than the Internet - face-to-face networks of closely-related people from where high-risk campaigning can be drawn. As Gladwell writes:

"what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham-discipline and strategy-were things that online social media cannot provide."

Internet only = easy expression + low impact

"[Using the Internet] 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."

Most of my work is about using digital tools for campaigning. However I have never been under the illusion that this is sufficient for that, more than my work can help accelerate and/or amplify the pressure for change. But a strategic approach to campaigning would involve leadership to organise supporters and direct a strong local groups. Media coverage and digital tools are useful additions to this, but not replacements. I see my contribution as complimenting and strengthening to face-to-face campaigning and providing a evidence-base check on over-enthusiasm with digital tools. I do love to play with them, but I don't confuse that with real impact.

What is troubling is that increasingly, in organisations' quests for lower costs, they are actually putting more emphasis on the digital tools and channels at the expense of the on-the-ground organising. While digital efforts have been dramatically underfunded for years, it is wasted investment if it doesn't compliment a strong leadership for local-groups.

Your perspective?

What did you think of Gladwell's article and/or of my comments to it? What do you think needs saying? (say it below!)

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