The normally spot-on Malcolm Gladwell took a big swing and completely whiffed in ruminating about the activism this week in an article in The New Yorker entitled, ‘Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.”
More than misunderstanding the role and power of social media, what I found most disturbing and disappointing about the article was that Gladwell doesn’t understand activism. Activism has come to represent a wide continuum of efforts, voluntary and professional, that, like the tax code I mentioned last week, cannot all fit neatly under one umbrella. The term activism has come to include society changing social movements, political advocacy, and acts of loving kindness, like giving clothes or food to people in need. Gladwell lumps all activism into the social movement category. There will only ever be one civil rights movement, and the every day overuse of the word “movement” (akin to the overuse of the word “gate” to describe political scandal highlighting a true lack of imagination on the party of the “gate”ers.)
Social movement are intense, long-term efforts developed by a core of people and then spread widely because of the moral indignation that galvanizes them. Gandhi spearheaded a social movement, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. The civil rights movement laid the groundwork for the women’s movements, and later still the gay rights. And that’s it, all of the other “movements” since have been advocacy or awareness campaigns (think climate change, recycling, drunk driving, breast cancer) to raise money or change public policy. or direct service efforts like feeding the hungry. They amount to a series of campaigns with very specific, intended outcomes. They are not social movements.
Gladwell’s assertion that social movements are based on tight ties and online efforts on, say, Facebook, are participatory efforts based on loose ties is simply not true. When one looks under the hood of a successful activism efforts, as Beth and I did for The Networked Nonprofit, whether part of movements or campaigns, they have a combination of initially tight ties, someone does have to drive the train, and loose ties, others have to join the effort for it to take off. In addition, all of the successful social efforts in the connected age happen both online and on land – see Moms Rising’s onesie campaign, Surfrider’s advocacy efforts, the Humane Society’s Spay Day efforts on Facebook and on land.
In this smart post, Jillian C. York agrees with the mis-characterization of the loose/tight ties by Gladwell.
On the social media side, Gladwell again misses the point. As Nancy Scola points out, “But where Gladwell seems guilty of contributing more to the froth than the substance is where he goes from questioning to drawing the conclusion that enormous personal courage that characterizes the desegregation of the mid-20th century American South is found but in pale imitation in the modern….”
Gladwell assumes that techtopians (count me in that category!) make no distinction between in person friends and online friends. He cites no evidence for this broad generalization. Networked Nonprofits that I have studied are very good at developing a “ladder of engagement.” (check out the awesome video that Beth has on this post of Chad Nelson of Surfrider Foundation describing their ladder of change.)
Organizations like Surfrider clearly understand that there is a wide funnel for organizations connecting with people; a large number of lightly touched people at the top (e.g. someone clicking that they “like” a cause on Facebook) and successive smaller numbers of people who then choose to engage in deeper and more meaningful ways (e.g. commenting on blogs, self organizing events, raising money.)
I agree with Nancy, this is a disappointing effort by Malcolm Gladwell, one of the smartest people in any field. He could have taken a few examples of networks enhancing activist efforts and really done an in interesting analysis of where and how they work well.