Exclusive: Biz Stone on Twitter and Activism

The New Yorker recently published a thoughtfully written article by Malcolm Gladwell titled, "Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted." Citing research done by Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, Mr. Gladwell compares what he sees happening today among people connected by modern social media to the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Real social change, Gladwell argues, is a phenomenon driven by something described as "strong ties" in the field of mathematical sociology.

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People who lived through this time repeatedly referred to feeling a "fever" to participate. Gladwell says this fever is better described as "a military campaign," adding that "Martin Luther King, Jr., was the unquestioned authority." Gladwell tells us that, "the center of the movement was the black church," and makes a strong argument that the status quo can only be truly challenged and changed by a hierarchical, militarily-like organization. Gladwell is wrong. Big change can come in small packages too.

On Christmas Day 2009, Liu Xiaobo, a fifty-four year old Chinese writer, was sentenced to eleven years imprisonment for co-authoring a manifesto of human rights calling for political reform in the People's Republic of China. Two weeks ago, this prisoner was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his enduring, non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. The Chinese government censored this news because discussion about it could lead to real impact and greater freedom in China.

Following the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen square and ensuing riots in Xinjiang that summer, Twitter is blocked in China. Nevertheless, clever citizens have devised ways around this block and continue to use Twitter. Professor of Internet Studies at Peking University, Hu Yong recently noted that, "Twitter is the only place where people can talk freely about Liu's Nobel prize." Yong further explains that, "Twitter has become a powerful tool for Chinese citizens as they increasingly play a role in reporting local news."

Twitter is a global information network made powerful by what the American sociologist Mark Granovetter from Stanford University first theorized as "The Strength of Weak Ties." Granovetter's paper was later popularized by the international bestselling book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by the esteemed Malcolm Gladwell. In his book, Gladwell teaches us how Paul Revere and this "weak-tie" phenomenon contributed to the success of The American Revolution.

Paul Revere had a broad network, a fast horse, and a catchy phrase far less than one hundred and forty characters: "The British are coming!" In "Small Change," Mr. Gladwell admits that social media activism is "a wonderful thing" empowering citizens with "marvelous efficiency." The American Revolution and Civil Rights Movement were not tweeted, but to suggest that emerging tools like Twitter have no part to play in the future of meaningful change is absurd. Little things can make a big difference.

In a recent article titled, "The Revolt of China's Twittering Classes," Professor Yong suggests that Twitter "invites new possibilities for reshaping China's authoritarian regime," by chipping away with a process he calls "micro-politics." According to Yong, "Recent years have seen an explosion of activities indicating that Twitter has become the coordinating platform for many campaigns asserting citizens' rights." Bit-by-bit, the open exchange of information provided by Twitter "can push forward real change." Yes, Mr. Gladwell, we are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

On December 27, 2007, incumbent Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki won re-election. Due to alleged electoral manipulation, Kibaki's swearing-in set off a wildfire of controversy which escalated into devastating ethnic violence -- more than thirty unarmed citizens were murdered in a church on New Year's Day.

A constitutional referendum was held in Kenya this summer in an effort to prevent future politically motivated violence. Polling stations opened early on the morning of August 4th, 2010. On this important morning however, something was amiss. Agents of the local legislator, traveling in a government vehicle, were harassing the long line of eager voters and urging them to say no to the new constitution. Because balloting had already started, this was an illegal activity. Thanks to a custom version of a social media program called Ushahidi ("Testimony" in Swahili) which gives ordinary people a voice via SMS, Twitter, or e-mail, a perceptive Kenyan was able to alert electoral officials with a simple text message.

The Kenyan constitutional referendum passed peacefully with more than six million votes for yes and less than three million votes for no. In a country known more to us in the West for its numerous wildlife reserves containing thousands of animal species, there are over fifteen million active mobile phone users and growing. The number of people who are engaging in social media activity over mobile phones is flourishing in The Republic of Kenya and it is giving rise to a newly empowered citizenry.

Twitter users played their roles in Moldovan revolts and the political unrest in Iran but Mr. Gladwell is keen to downplay their efforts -- and the fact that former national-security adviser Mark Pfeifle called for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize seems only to have ruffled his feathers. Mr. Gladwell ends his piece by highlighting a story about a lost mobile phone suggesting Twitter is only good for helping "Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls," and closes smugly with, "Viva la revoluciĆ³n."

"Small Change" dismisses leaderless, self-organizing systems as viable agents of change. A flock of birds flying around an object in flight has no leader yet this beautiful, seemingly choreographed movement is the very embodiment of change. Rudimentary communication among individuals in real time allows many to move together as one--suddenly uniting everyone in a common goal. Lowering the barrier to activism doesn't weaken humanity, it brings us together and it makes us stronger.