In the latest issue of the New Yorker, author Malcolm Gladwell provides an interesting and provocative criticism of social media and activism, claiming that “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” Drawing on examples from the 1960 Greensboro, N.C. sit-in and the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, he argues that activism is high-risk and relies on strong ties, whereas social media is inherently associated with weak ties to others, which rarely encourage high-risk activism. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, he argues, are built around networks and connections, some of which one may never meet – after all, you don’t control who re-tweets your tweets, and that Facebook friend that you added last week may not have been in the same room as you since 1996. Getting a million people to join a “Save Darfur” page on Facebook isn’t an example of activism, but an example of what people can do when you don’t ask too much of them — increasing participation by lessening motivation. Traditional activism, then, is defined as “confronting socially entrenched norms and practices,” defined by hierarchical organization, discipline, and strategy. MLK, he argues, couldn’t have benefited from Twitter or Facebook to organize a boycott from his jail cell precisely because of their inability to provide discipline and strategy.
But is that true? Gladwell’s argument seems to rest on an antiquated notion of activism. “Traditional” activism — that is, activism defined by hierarchy — doesn’t seem to have a place in the digital age, or rather, it should be altered to fit the way in which we communicate now. One of the greatest hallmarks of social media is, in addition to its ability to make the world a little smaller, is the decentralization of power and faith in the abilities of the ordinary citizen to make a difference. The dissemination of information about any particular subject, whether about soccer activists’ efforts to stop HIV and AIDS in Africa or voting for Obama, is an empowering mechanism that enables people to become more engaged in the causes that they support. Gladwell claims that this type of engagement is low-risk and not representative of the type of sacrifice that one should make if they’re committed to a cause; I’d argue that we should reconceptualize the way in which we view activism and “sacrifice.”
Gladwell’s framework for activism seems to rest on the assumption that activism only succeeds when supported by the most highly-dedicated and motivated individuals who are willing to be organized by hierarchy. But this assumption runs into a few problems. First, this framework seems to promote an elitist view of activism, in which only the most dedicated and the most willing are able to participate. This framework disregards the different ways in which activists work on causes today, and the way that activism has evolved. A simple expression of support, whether by donation or Facebook fan page-ing, is no less meaningful or important than direct action taken by activists. While I don’t disagree that organizers and leaders are necessary for any cause, I think that there’s wasted potential in disregarding the power of utilizing networks. In addition, there is a strength in numbers: while a million Facebook fans supporting DADT repeal may not translate into a million actions being taken to repeal DADT, the dissemination of information regarding the cause could incite a hundred thousand or so of those fans into rallying, writing to their legislators, distributing resources, phonebanking, or taking leadership positions in their movements. Let’s not exclude people from becoming valuable assets to activist movements simply because they heard about the cause from Twitter.
This isn’t to say that Gladwell may not have a point when he says:
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?
But it also isn’t fair to assume that social media sites are inherently prone to disorganization and chaos, or that they increase obstacles to organizing. People are still figuring out how to best utilize these sites to reach their goals, and there have been examples of effective organization by social media sites — one would include Organizing for America’s efforts to mobilize voters. Additionally, I think that there’s a problem when leadership efforts don’t take into account equal say. It’s difficult (near-impossible) to reach a complete consensus on an issue, but the inclusion of voices to guide the direction of a movement should always be of paramount importance.
So, what do you think? Let’s open this up to discussion. Is Malcolm Gladwell right? Are social media sites only helpful when activists want to “make a splash?” What would you define as activism today?