Gladwell on the Sidelines

(The lovely image is from the article discussed below, but there is no credit identified.)

Malcolm Gladwell tends to write about what exists and why, not what is coming into existence and what it means or how to advance it.

In an article in the October 4th issue of The New Yorker called Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, he does it again with social media activism:

. . . it is a form of organizing which favors 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 an impact.

He is talking, of course, about 'slacktivism' which is the pundit's dismissive term for the way many people leave their militancy on the walls of Facebook pages:

Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make real sacrifice.

Contrasted to this is "high-risk activism" which is at the core of disruptive social change like that which started the civil rights movement in the US in the late 50s and early 60s . . . "Activism that challenges the status quo - that attacks deeply rooted problems - is not for the faint of heart." It requires, as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (rendered in the picture above) and Gladwell agree, strategy, discipline and hierarchy. (That's why the Bolsheviks led a revolution and anarchists could not.)

No argument there. But to say this is not Facebook, Twitter and other social networks is short-sighted and something of a straw-man line of reasoning. Yes Facebook and Twitter are weak-tie networks and will never in themselves be platforms for sweeping systemic change. But they do a couple of things well: they create ties where there were none before; and they are a source of ideas. People making connections and debating ideas are fertile ground for social activism, just like the late night chats of the freshmen in Greensboro who courageously challenged racism at the Woolworth's lunch counter in 1960, Gladwell's apocryphal story (not in the facts, which are true, but in the significance Gladwell affords it) starting point for his article.

I wish Gladwell had spent his awesome intellectual gifts thinking about what use of the social web could move weak-tie connections to the strong-tie relationships that are midwives to strategic and disciplined social activism. He should take a close look at successful online political and community organizing (such as the Obama election campaign about which he says nothing) and see how it converts loose networks into a campaign force. Or he should imagine a Facebook campaign which, at its inception, builds in mechanisms for organizing action, for gathering and unleashing committed high-risk activists.

Instead, Gladwell plays to the myopic crowd who find it easier to talk about limits than about opportunties.

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