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Summary:

Author Malcolm Gladwell argued in a recent piece for New Yorker magazine that the influence of Twitter and other social-media tools on social activism has been over-stated, but as Twitter co-founder Biz Stone notes in an essay of his own, this argument has some serious flaws.

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New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell’s erudite skewering of various cultural phenomena, something he has become famous (or possibly infamous) for, tends to produce a strong reaction in those who are close to the topics he takes on, and his recent analysis of Twitter and its potential uses as a tool for social activism is no exception. In the several weeks since he wrote the original piece, over half a dozen essays and blog posts from a variety of sources have come out arguing that he is wrong, and today, The Atlantic magazine joined the fray with a guest essay by none other than Twitter co-founder Biz Stone that took issue with his conclusions. (The title of this post comes from a message that Stone posted to Twitter about his essay.)

Gladwell’s article was entitled “Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” and started with an evocative image: a group of black college students holding a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. in 1960, to protest racism: an event that triggered subsequent rallies and demonstrations throughout the southern U.S. All this, Gladwell says, “happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.” The author then goes on to puncture the conventional wisdom that Twitter had anything much to do with revolutions in Moldova or Iran, and says that “fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

The New Yorker writer’s point is clear: real activism involves sit-ins and getting shot at, not sitting at a keyboard posting things on Twitter or text messaging. It’s hard to disagree with this; no one would argue that posting a comment to Twitter while sipping a latte at Starbucks is activism, simply because you happen to use the #iran hashtag. But is Gladwell making a fair comparison? I don’t think so. As other critics such as Anil Dash have also argued, setting up a contrast between Twitter and anti-racism demonstrations in the 1960s is effectively a straw-man argument, which allows the author to slam the social network for not doing things that no one has ever really claimed it was trying to do.

One of Gladwell’s central arguments is that Twitter and other social media tools emphasize — and are powered by — what sociologists call “weak ties” between individuals (a term coined by Mark Granovetter): that is, the kind of ties that you have to your co-workers, or friends from high school, or people who belong to the same clubs as you. Gladwell says that real activism only occurs as a result of strong ties, the kind that people have to their churches, their families, and to strong leaders, and that real revolutions require a hierarchy that is antithetical to social media like Twitter. In his Atlantic essay, Biz Stone says: “Gladwell is wrong. Big change can come in small packages too” (Stone and co-founder Ev Williams made similar points in a recent Q & A discussion).

By that, the Twitter founder means that even weak ties can help pull people together around causes in ways that matter. He uses several examples, including the case of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident who is in prison for writing about human rights, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. Has Twitter led to his release? No. But as Stone argues, it has given Chinese citizens a way of talking about him, something that they would otherwise not have done — as described in a recent blog post by Hu Yong, a professor of Internet studies at Peking University. Yong said Twitter was “the only place where people can talk freely” about Liu and his ideas, and that it has become “a powerful tool for Chinese citizens.” Burmese democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, imprisoned for more than 15 years, has said when she is released one of the first things she wants to do is get a Twitter account so she can communicate with her supporters.

In her response to Gladwell’s piece, author Maria Popova describes several cases in which Facebook helped spark “real” social activism, including public protests in Colombia in 2008 that saw close to 5 million people participate in protests against the country’s armed forces, and a campaign in Bulgaria in 2009 that resulted in the largest public protests since the fall of communism, and led to the resignation of several Parliament members. As others have noted in their criticisms, Gladwell seems to see activism as an either-or proposition: Either you use social media, in which case it’s ineffective and useless, or you gather in the streets and do real activism. But wouldn’t some of those demonstrators in 1960 have loved to have better ways of getting their message out to as many people as possible?

While I was reading Gladwell’s piece, in my head I replaced any mention of Twitter or Facebook with the words “the telephone,” and then it became a diatribe about how people talking on the telephone has never amounted to anything in terms of social activism. That is probably just as true as his criticisms of Twitter. But would any modern social effort or campaign or demonstration be effective without someone making phone calls? Twitter and Facebook are just tools, and they can be used for social good in the same way any other tool can. And those “weak ties” can eventually grow into strong ones.

As Stone notes at the end of his essay: “Rudimentary communication among individuals in real time allows many to move together as one — suddenly uniting everyone in a common goal.” And that is a positive thing for social change, not a negative one.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users PopTech and David Reece

  1. Stone’s tweet proves Gladwell’s case. He reduced the argument to picking on Gladwell’s appearance. Your article amplifies that, going with a healine that Gladwell is “wrong” then somehow (correctly) conceding Gladwell’s main arguments on their face, but then claiming he still doesn’t get it because he failed to join in the chorus about how great social media is.

    Re:Liu Xiaobo, you write “Has Twitter led to his release? No. But as Stone argues, it has given Chinese citizens a way of talking about him”

    You understand this is in no way refutes Gladwell’s point, right? This is affirming Gladwell’s case that getting people “talking” is of limited real value. Why would you even mention this? This is exactly what Gladwell was talking about.

    The response to Gladwell’s points has illustrated the true power of social media: TO mobilize a lot of reactionary “OMG NO HE DIDN’T” jibber-jabber without actually considering his points in a careful, rational way, and certainly without refuting them in any convincing way.

    Can communication tools help? Yes? Are they a revolution in themselves? No. That has to come from us. When someone points this out, it behooves us to stop gleefully banding together to tear him down, and look for ways to incorporate his points into a stronger worldview.

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    1. well said.

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    2. bravo, well stated.

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    3. good. facebook, twitter, linkedin are not sparking any sort of activisms, I mean come on, the most followed personality on Twitter is Kim K, what sort of activism you expect from that. Twitter and Facebook are only facilitating communication between brands and consumers. Twitter and Facebook are replacing TV

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    4. Thanks for the comment, Mick — maybe I didn’t express it very well, but the point I was trying to make is that Malcolm’s argument assumes that it is an either-or question, when the reality is that social media and “real” activism can work together to create change. It’s not a binary question.

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  2. Another one that misses the point. The latest or currently most useful tool of mass communication will obviously be used in any mass demonstration, protest or even revolution. That’s a no-brainer. You and Maria mistake “was involved/used in” for “helped spark” where there is no evidence it did anything of the kind. A 100 years ago protests were aided, but not built in the sense Gladwell meant, by pamphlets and leaflets, (they still are) now social networking sites are in the mix. So what? Without Twitter the Iranian “uprising” would not have been perceptibly different. The same goes for the protests you mention in Colombia and Bulgaria.

    True that Facebook and Twitter will make protests easier to organize, but they not only don’t produce but actively discourage strong ties, that which makes protests *effective* by measures other than head count, and not mere media driven bluster. Twitter and Facebook are nothing. Whether they are involved or not, what will matter come “the revolution” in whatever country is what goes on in meeting halls, basements, churches, living rooms and so on.

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    1. Agreed, it’s a tool to help organise those people that have that drive, much like the printing press, it isn’t the reason for a demo, that comes from within. However, knowing that others feel the same is improved through any communication – how did the race protests get known about? However, in a plugged-in world we find that the places we inhabit are increasingly digital, what happens there is becoming more important – I wouldn’t say more important than what happens in the street (cyber attack vs manned invasion anyone?) but on a personal and reputation level it is where that particular battle is being fought.

      To make this a (excuse the pun) black or white issue makes no sense at all.. Gladwell is a great thinker but does much of that thinking out loud, people find that hard to handle.

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    2. I disagree that social media tools not only don’t encourage but actually discourage strong ties — I don’t think that’s the case at all. I know of several cases in my own experience in which people who were connected via weak ties formed strong ones as a result of social media. I realize that’s not scientific evidence, but I still think you are wrong to dismiss that. Thanks for the comment though.

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      1. So you’re actually agreeing with Gladwell. He never said that social media can’t mobilize people who are already engaged in a movement. He just argues it can’t do the heavy lifting of building the movement from the ground up. Back to what Biz Stone wrote in The Atlantic, Paul Revere galloping from town to town announcing that the British were coming would have had no affect on the populace without years of oppression from the British and resentment from the Americans that had reached a boiling point (or tipping point). Revere himself was a communication tool for the revolutionaries, who’d spent years growing the movement. Don’t confuse the weak ties Revere had with the people he was mobilizing with the strong ties they had to the movement itself.

        Too much of social media activism is just feel-good branding. Look at me, I care so deeply about this issue that I changed my Facebook status! Some people are doing a good job of integrating social media into their movements. Lance Armstong uses Twitter to publicize the Livestrong organization. But he also has a hierarchical leadership team in place, and Livestrong’s success depends on people donating time and money and working their butts off (literally, when we’re talking about bike races) for a cause they care very deeply about. Here in Toronto, Dave Meslin uses social media to keep people informed about electoral change initiatives. But he still needs those people to show up to meetings, and to sign up as volunteers and get involved in politics. Real change takes work and sacrifice. Gladwell’s piece is a needed reminder to activists not to get lazy.

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  3. Meh. For once, I actually agree with most of what Gladwell says… but I said it much more succinctly (140 characters! 15 months ago.)

    http://roberthheath.blogspot.com/2009/06/twitter-revolution.html

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  4. I for one will be glad when Facebook, Twitter, and all the up-and-coming networks that you haven’t even heard about yet bite the dust in five years. The vast unwashed masses will drop these trendy digital brands the minute something shinier comes along.

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  5. “But wouldn’t some of those demonstrators in 1960 have loved to have better ways of getting their message out to as many people as possible?”

    Yes. I’m sure they would’ve loved to have Twitter, and also to be able to afford the devices and services that allow you to use it. But guess what? They wouldn’t have been able to afford any of that stuff, and even if they could, the powers-that-be wouldn’t let them have it. That was one of the whole points of putting themselves in harm’s way.

    You missed a major point of Gladwell’s piece. Read the last anecdote in it again.

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  6. This article is ridiculous.

    Gladwell’s argument is that Twitter won’t lead to “big change activism.” Everyone is saying he is wrong, but no one is pointing to an example of Twitter or anything like Twitter accomplishing this very thing. Until there’s a revolution that happens because of, or with the strong assistance of social media like Twitter, Gladwell is right.

    If you want to write a whole article about how he’s wrong, try *proving* it instead of just pointing to all the other articles where people are saying he’s wrong. This article essentially argues that because the balance of opinion (that this author has heard of), is against Gladwell, then he must be wrong. Stupid stupid stupid.

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    1. My point was that Gladwell’s argument is essentially unfair — saying Twitter will never cause a revolution is like saying the telephone will never cause a revolution. It’s a ridiculous statement to make. The reality is that real revolutions use whatever tools they have, and social media tools like Twitter can help spread those messages and help create change. I’m not trying to disprove his point — I’m saying the point itself is flawed.

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  7. I think you totally missed the point and somehow got defensive cause you can’t get over your love of twitter. Gladwell is spot on.

    Biz proves Gladwell’s point and your own article does too.

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    1. Spot on what? Self-aggrandizing deconstruction?

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  8. Why burden twitter with the onerous responsibility of social change /activism? It has been designed to exchange mundane (if not moronic) messages between lounge potatoes, or between celebrities and their peeping toms, or for narcissists to announce the watershed-events of their lives to the rest of the world (as if it cares).

    Yes, twitter (or social media) can come in handy in mobilizing the voice of the (largely indifferent) masses towards a social cause. Whether this makes any difference is a moot point. Oops, wait. It seems to make a difference within the social media, but of what relevance would that be (to the social cause in question) is still a moot point.

    A kitty party serves a different purpose than sit-ins such as that of 1960. Let us not burden the kitty party with social angst. That simply wont work. But in theory, it is very much possible (though hardly probable) that a kitty party kick starts a campaign for a social cause.

    Malcolm Gladwell is right, but he should be glad if someone (truly) proves him wrong! I, for one, would be more than glad.

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  9. My own experience with Facebook tells that it can be a very effective for mobilizing people. A year+ ago I set up Facebook group to support a rape victim and raise issues about the work of 112 (European equivalent of 911) in my country. Responsible institutions started banging on our door wanting to meet us, because the number of people involved was so big they could not ignore us. The case received a lot of media attention and real help from people, some of whom, only collaborated on the project but never met in real life (fund raising, translations, contacting journalist, meetings, interviews).
    The lessons and benefits of using these tools are that a) you can amass a big enough number of people no institution can ignore and speak on their behalf. b) get some real people do real work for the cause c)you have to remember that Twitter or FB wont do this for you, there have to be real people in charge and these tools are very good at getting you in touch with right people… as our case shows it’s was a massive help in getting things going, so I cant see why it could not be used as one of the tools for bigger things (well, but maybe revolution is too big;))

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    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Arunas — you have helped me make my point. The tools alone cannot create change, but they can certainly help connect you to people who can.

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  10. [...] Memo to Malcolm Gladwell: Nice Hair, But You Are Wrong [...]

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