Gladwell, M. (2010) ‘Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted’

Gladwell, M., (2010) ‘Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted‘, ‘Twitter, Facebook, and social activism’ The New Yorker, October 4, 2010.

Gladwell starts by telling us the story of how four freshmen students from North Carolina A. & T. college, sat down at the lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro and started a protest that became a revolution.

Some seventy thousand students eventually took part. Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade – and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter. (2)

His article goes on to tell us that, whatever we might hear or read in the mass media, social media has not “reinvented social activism”. Despite the hyperbole (including a call for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize) the evidence for social media tools as direct agents of change isn’t there.

There was no Moldovan “Twitter Revolution” because there were very few Twitter accounts in Moldova, and the people tweeting about demonstrations in Iran were mostly in the West. Gladwell quotes Golnaz Esfandiari, writing in Foreign Policy journal:

Western journalists who couldn’t reach – or didn’t bother reaching? – people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets with tag #iranelection. Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.

Gladwell refers back to the black students starting their protest in pointing out:

Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is. (3)

In this he mirrors Jones’ criticism of the internet as simply an organisational tool, rather than one which fosters understanding leading to effective action.

Gladwell returns to the Greensboro protest and explores why, as the movement grew, some protestors stayed active despite violent attacks and killings: “Activism that challenges the status quo – that attacks deeply rooted problems – is not for the faint of heart.”

He quotes sociologist Doug McAdam whose research found that the difference wasn’t a protestor’s commitment to the civil rights cause but their “degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement”:

High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon”. (p4)

Gladwell refers to other studies of revolutionary movements that found similar strong-tie phenomena, with individuals linked to a protest group by “critical friends” – the number of good friends you had who were already critical of the regime, etc. and taking part in the protest.

So the “crucial factor” that led the four black freshmen in Greensboro from discussion to high-risk action was the strength of their relationship with one another:

Ezell Blair worked up the courage…to ask for a cup of coffee [in the Woolworth’s] because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school. (5)

However, he argues, “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties.” Twitter is about people you have never met; Facebook is about managing acquaintances. (p5)

This is also a good thing – acquaintances, not friends (as Mark Granovetter observes) “are our greatest source of new ideas and information.” The Internet is “terrific at the diffusion of innovation.”

But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism. (5)

Conversely,  the weak ties of social media deliver effective action when the action required is easy and low risk – Gladwell cites the case of Sameer Bhatia searching for a bone-marrow match, resulting in 25k people signing up  to the bone-marrow database.

He argues that it worked because the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf is “by not asking too much of them”. There’s no financial or personal risk, it doesn’t “require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices”. Signing up for a donor registry is not activism in the same sense as sitting down at a segregated lunch counter.

Social networks are effective at increasing participation – by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. (6)

Darfur charities on Facebook may have encouraged millions of members to sign up to their pages, but those members have donated an average of only a few cents to Darfur charities.

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. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro. (6)

Clicktivism. I need to compare this with Bennett and Segerberg’s paper.

He returns to the civil-rights protests to show how this was not only high-risk activism but, equally crucially, “strategic activism“.

Social media are tools for building networks of loose ties, with decisions made through consensus. “This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations” (eg Wikipedia, whose content could be swiftly re-written in the event of erasure).

But, Gladwell, argues such leader-less networks are less good at reaching consensus, setting goals and defining strategies and direction.

Al Qaeda was most dangerous when it was a unified hierarchy. Now that it has dissipated into a network, it had proved far less effective. (8)

If the network simply wants “to frighten or humiliate or make a splash”, these drawbacks don’t matter, “but if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.” (8)

If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight percent 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. (9)

Gladwell concludes with strong criticism of Clay Shirky’s “bible of the social-media movement“: “Here Comes Everybody” and its opening story of Evan, Ivanna, Sasha and the “lost” cellphone:

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 strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger.

He goes further:

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.

A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolucion

Good arguments to contrast against the pro-online sphere academics like Dhalgren and Bennett and Segerberg, and supports some of Jones’s arguments. 

But we need to ask about the effectiveness of the PS in creating any change. Are our hopes for what the PS could deliver similar to hopes for what communications technology could deliver? Did the PS ever deliver anything beyond discussion that may lead to incremental shifts in public opinion, is it meant to? And how does that fit with radical change delivered by Gladwell’s real-world revolutions?


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