Your (Brilliant) Responses to Gladwell on Social Media and Activism

The comments in response to my thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell's latest New Yorker piece about social media and activism are so extraordinary that they deserve their own post. Here are highlights, but go read the whole thread in situ. It's great. I love being shown up by our readers.

These comments convince me that we're on the right track here on the Technology channel. Because when I read this conversation, I see a real community developing that's dedicated to thinking seriously, historically, and politically about technological issues. Thank you all.

Cynic provides great context:

The key to Gladwell's error lies in the examples he offers. He quotes, without irony, Michael Walzer writing in Dissent about the events of 1960 - a journal that at the time, had a circulation of just 4,000, and was unconnected to any hierarchical movement. One way to think of Dissent and other journals of its ilk is as early, print-based social networks, through which a community of similarly-inclined individuals exchanged ideas and kept in touch. Like contemporary social networks, these journals were highly effective at disseminating ideas, but extremely poor vehicles for functional organizing. I don't think that dynamic changes, fundamentally, even when the frequency of publication is measured in nanoseconds, and not months. On the other hand, Dissent and the ideas it contained mattered. It helped inspire people to do the hard work of actual organizing. It also helped similarly-inclined people locate each other, and by serving as a common touchstone, helped separate groups coordinate their agendas.

This is the best way to conceive of contemporary digital networks. They continue to co-exist alongside more structured and hierarchical forms of organization. A local group of activists which uses twitter to keep its members informed of its activities, and to encourage them to attend, is simply leveraging the available tools. Once, it might have used the posts, or placed notices in the local paper. Today, it tweets. There are important changes implicit in this transition, to be sure. Organizations have a much easier time reaching broader publics. They can spread more quickly, and more broadly. They can enlist a huge number of individuals to perform small tasks, that in aggregate add up to large accomplishments. But these are changes in scale, not in type.

Gladwell, as is so often the case, fatally overstates a useful observation. He might have done well with a plus ca change thesis, arguing that social networks introduce differences in degree, not in kind. To have pointed out, gently, that the idea of perfectly flat, spontaneous organizations is as unworkable today as ever it was; that social networks have provided new tools, but not new paradigms. Instead, he offers a declension tale, in which social networks are not merely a new and more effective version of older technologies, but a distraction. He suggests that social networks will reinforce the status quo, by serving to promote false consciousness "buffing around the edges" in place of revolutionary change. This is just silly. It recapitulates the same error of which Gladwell accuses the utopians; it mistakes a new version of an old thing for something entirely new. It's not.

Tim Carmody just nails that movements have always been built on weak and strong ties:

Finally, you can't say that the weak ties in the Civil Rights movement weren't valuable. In 1964, all those weakly-linked people connected through the social and media networks of their day voted in a President and Congress who passed the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, and a whole slew of progressive legislation. (Shortly, of course, the whole coalition disintegrated over political radicalism and Vietnam.)

The whole point of those demonstrations, those organizations, was to activate those weak social networks, radiating outward through word-of-mouth, through television and radio, through newspapers, and in politics. "The whole world is watching." That's overwhelmingly the role played by these networks; blogs too. They can be an organizing medium, but they're primarily a broadcast medium. And every broadcast, from Twitter to Fox News, loosely organizes a group of weak activists. We call it a public.

David Dobbs provides a counterexample and points Gladwell cherry picked:

Gladwell makes some rather sweeping statements himself that don't quite hold up -- and misses, as you note, that weak ties can generate strong ties.

And perhaps even action. Here in the UK right now, for instance, a couple of science bloggers have lit what seems to be a late- but fast-blooming movement to mobilize scientists against proposed cuts in science funding -- huge cuts, on the order of 20%+. There had been a lot of grumbling and handwringing and but little public pressure or activism. But a couple weeks ago, a blog and twitter campaign catalyzed a couple dozen people to organize a scientists march on Parliament to try to stop the cuts. It's still early. But so far this social media organization is the only one that has moved science advocates outside circle of usual suspects beyond an op-ed level engagement with the issue.

That may peter out and support Gladwell's argument. But it seems to underline some softness in Gladwell's argument.

My bigger problem, though -- a suspicion fueled by the overbreadth of his own statements and dismissals, and by previous dismissals from him -- is that Gladwell seems intent on using not just a highly difficult problem (challenging institutionalized racism is rather hard, to say the least), but precisely the sort of campaign and activism and challenge least amenable to social media to argue that these new, more open ways of connecting people and passing information are wildly oversold and don't really have any teeth and can't effect real change. They've certainly changed the publishing industry, however, including the financial models and the future of magazines like those he (and I) write for, and stand to radically change science as well.

That may not be change as dramatic as that wrought by The Greensboro Four and Martin Luther King. But how often do we get change that radical anyway? Not very. Gladwell, for instance, had to go back to the civil rights movement to find an example in the US. I can see why he bypassed the antiwar movement on his way there: It helped stop a war, but did so with a much sloppier, chaotic, less disciplined movement than that created by the southern churches. He has used perhaps the toughest, most challenging episode of social change in the country's history as a case study. It's hardly a surprise he finds Twitter and Facebook -- and a rather cherry-picked, oversimplified view of them -- to fall short of the task.

Tim Maly counters, noting Gladwell's not just after strawmen:

David, on your bigger problem: that Gladwell is being overbroad and cherry-picking intractable social problems to address with social networking. I'm not sure that's a fair assessment. I think it is fair for Gladwell to be going after the various Twitter revolutions and the phenomenon of Facebook Affinity groups. Because, let's be honest, he's not attacking a straw man on these. There really are very smart people who think (or at least thought) that Twitter and Facebook will (would) effect radical social change.

Heather Gold lays out the case for decentralized, networked action:

The entire point of networked organizing is that it doesn't work in a command and control fashion. "Leadership" in a network system works better through tummeling.

Of course online networks don't replace the very human work of making connections but , as you point out, the online world can aid and speed the very human business of making connections. And properly tummeled, online organizing can easily be a part of the "napsterization" of political organizing that will have a very big impact.

Strategy, and leadership will be as iterative as everything else that is working well now and the phrase "clear lines of authority" seems to assume decision-making is only a one-way street.

Brian Frank introduces Gladwell's own history:

If social media or online communication is the means to the creation of a personal connection, it's a fabulous thing. But if it's an excuse to not make a connection, it's ultimately a trivial thing.

Instead of looking for ways in which social media helps facilitate deeper, more enduring connections [update: to clarify, I meant more generally looking for ways to make the most of what we have and actually address real weaknesses that exist], it looks like he spent the intervening time looking for the most vivid anecdote to support his initial apprehension.

With that in mind we ought to consider, if good storytelling is the means to understand and make the most of something, then it's a fabulous thing. But if it's an excuse not to learn and grow, then ultimately it's a trivial thing.