Back in 2010, The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, reflecting on the trendy claim that Twitter had fueled recent protests in Moldova and Iran, penned an article explaining why "the revolution will not be tweeted." Facebook and Twitter, he argued, enable us to build decentralized networks of thousands of people we've never met, but these digital communities don't offer the hierarchies and strong social ties necessary for "high-risk activism" like, say, staging a sit-in at a Greensboro lunch counter in 1960. Social networking tools, he concluded, make "it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact ... They are not a natural enemy of the status quo."
The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have challenged--though not necessarily debunked--Gladwell's thesis. Social media has played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring, whether it's Egyptian blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy documenting the abuses of Egyptian security forces on Flickr or Syrian activists establishing a news network on Facebook. YouTube, and Twitter to amass amateur video from across the country. Yet one could also argue that while social networks are helping protesters organize and communicate amongst themselves and with the international community, Gladwell's "high-risk activism" is happening offline. In an interview in April, Syrian human rights activist Wissam Tarif told The Atlantic Wire that social networks help him disseminate information efficiently, but that they're tools, nothing more. "The revolution is happening in the street by real people," he said. "We rely on getting information from the real people in the real uprising and we verify it" before distributing the updates via social media.