Reconceptualizing Activism: A Response to Gladwell

From a presentation on the use of Twitter during the 2009 Iranian election crisis. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, author Malcolm Gladwell provides an interesting and provocative criticism of social media and activism, claiming that “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” Drawing on examples from the 1960 Greensboro, N.C. sit-in and the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, he argues that activism is high-risk and relies on strong ties, whereas social media is inherently associated with weak ties to others, which rarely encourage high-risk activism. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, he argues, are built around networks and connections, some of which one may never meet – after all, you don’t control who re-tweets your tweets, and that Facebook friend that you added last week may not have been in the same room as you since 1996. Getting a million people to join a “Save Darfur” page on Facebook isn’t an example of activism, but an example of what people can do when you don’t ask too much of them — increasing participation by lessening motivation. Traditional activism, then, is defined as “confronting socially entrenched norms and practices,” defined by hierarchical organization, discipline, and strategy. MLK, he argues, couldn’t have benefited from Twitter or Facebook to organize a boycott from his jail cell precisely because of their inability to provide discipline and strategy.

But is that true? Gladwell’s argument seems to rest on an antiquated notion of activism. “Traditional” activism — that is, activism defined by hierarchy — doesn’t seem to have a place in the digital age, or rather, it should be altered to fit the way in which we communicate now. One of the greatest hallmarks of social media is, in addition to its ability to make the world a little smaller, is the decentralization of power and faith in the abilities of the ordinary citizen to make a difference. The dissemination of information about any particular subject, whether about soccer activists’ efforts to stop HIV and AIDS in Africa or voting for Obama, is an empowering mechanism that enables people to become more engaged in the causes that they support. Gladwell claims that this type of engagement is low-risk and not representative of the type of sacrifice that one should make if they’re committed to a cause; I’d argue that we should reconceptualize the way in which we view activism and “sacrifice.”

Gladwell’s framework for activism seems to rest on the assumption that activism only succeeds when supported by the most highly-dedicated and motivated individuals who are willing to be organized by hierarchy. But this assumption runs into a few problems. First, this framework seems to promote an elitist view of activism, in which only the most dedicated and the most willing are able to participate. This framework disregards the different ways in which activists work on causes today, and the way that activism has evolved. A simple expression of support, whether by donation or Facebook fan page-ing, is no less meaningful or important than direct action taken by activists. While I don’t disagree that organizers and leaders are necessary for any cause, I think that there’s wasted potential in disregarding the power of utilizing networks. In addition, there is a strength in numbers: while a million Facebook fans supporting DADT repeal may not translate into a million actions being taken to repeal DADT, the dissemination of information regarding the cause could incite a hundred thousand or so of those fans into rallying, writing to their legislators, distributing resources, phonebanking, or taking leadership positions in their movements. Let’s not exclude people from becoming valuable assets to activist movements simply because they heard about the cause from Twitter.

This isn’t to say that Gladwell may not have a point when he says:

Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

But it also isn’t fair to assume that social media sites are inherently prone to disorganization and chaos, or that they increase obstacles to organizing. People are still figuring out how to best utilize these sites to reach their goals, and there have been examples of effective organization by social media sites — one would include Organizing for America’s efforts to mobilize voters. Additionally, I think that there’s a problem when leadership efforts don’t take into account equal say. It’s difficult (near-impossible) to reach a complete consensus on an issue, but the inclusion of voices to guide the direction of a movement should always be of paramount importance.

So, what do you think? Let’s open this up to discussion. Is Malcolm Gladwell right? Are social media sites only helpful when activists want to “make a splash?” What would you define as activism today?

About Anna Ward

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5 Comments on “Reconceptualizing Activism: A Response to Gladwell”

  1. @Anna said: “A simple expression of support, whether by donation or Facebook fan page-ing, is no less meaningful or important than direct action taken by activists.”

    Really? For me this single statement represents a lapse of critical thinking with regard to evaluating activism. It comes down to something many people are reluctant to do – assign value to action out of a desire to count all acts as equal and make sure everyone feels included. Nice ideal but not at all realistic. I have to disagree that a $5 donation on Facebook is equivalent to a direct action or an activist with real skin in the game, willing to show up in a community, have challenging conversations with decision makers, develop solutions with stakeholders and the like.

    The danger, I think is that the great access we now have to these efforts via social media channels allows masses of people to have the “feeling” that they are supporting a cause but upon evaluation their level of engagement doesn’t really have much impact at all. What difference does it really make if you click “like” all day long to support your favorite causes on Facebook? I think Malcolm was suggesting not to confuse on-line activism with what is necessary to create off-line change and the level of motivation that has to be cultivated via real relationships.

    He didn’t say that social media didn’t have any value or that it wasn’t a good tool to have in the box. He does assert that it’s simply getting more hype than it deserves and that the substance is really not there to support the claims and enthusiasm.

    It’s a fascinating topic. I would certainly like to hear more perspectives particularly from those folks who are discovering tangible value from incorporating social media into their mission for change. Thanks for starting the discussion.

    1. I agree with you, Sherisa. Gladwell did us all a huge favor by raising these questions so publicly – and even though he may be overstating things here and there, he’s since clarified that he didn’t mean to say these tools have no place.

      And Anna, I do agree with you that we need to keep to make sure that the door is always open to new people, at whatever level they are able to contribute. Meeting people where they’re at is a key tenet of organizing. Thanks for taking the time to write up your thoughts on this. The only thing I’d add is that we *also* want to make sure that there are good paths that these folks can follow should they decide they want to engage more deeply in the issue.

      I think the key question that Gladwell’s article raises is how do we build bridges between the weak and the strong ties? What does that look like in terms of the tools? The strategies and organizational processes? This is not really what Gladwell was asking, but these are the questions that we now need to answer in order for these new tools of social change to have on-the-ground impact.

      More thoughts on this here:

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