I really like Malcolm Gladwell's new piece on digital political organizing.
It's got an excellent structure, alternating scenes of the lunch counter protests of the 1960s with ideas about the loose social groups that activists attempt to catalyze on Facebook and Twitter. His big point is weak-tie networks don't have the dedication and structure to take on an established power structure. Martin Luther King, Jr, he notes, had a one million dollar budget and 100 staff members on the ground when he got to Birmingham.
I found myself surprised at how much I liked the piece. I'm a big fan of Clay Shirky, whose various writings about the potential of the Internet as an organizing platform would seem to run directly contrary to Gladwell's thesis.
Certainly, the strong form of his argument -- that Twitter and Facebook make it harder to organize -- seems unsupported (at least in this article). But I can get behind a weaker form of the idea. Communication technologies are often lauded as the key to unlock our societal shackles even if they actually reinforce existing power structures -- and Gladwell does an excellent job pointing that out.
So, I think we can read Gladwell's piece as a fairly specific indictment of the current uses of the current generation of tools. Truth is, very few major activism projects succeed through Facebook or Twitter. Shirky would totally agree with that, I think. And in cases where they seem to have helped, it's quite difficult to quantify how much, if at all. The explicit compare-and-contrast with Birmingham and the broader civil rights movement throws the possibility that we're diminishing and deracinating activism into stark relief, and I think that's a good thing.