Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Malcolm Gladwell Is Dead Wrong

I have to say I was perplexed by Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Small Change – Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.”

At the heart of it he seems to be challenging the notion that Social Networks can be a part of Social Activism.


Social Activism needs hierarchical structure vs. the networked topology of Social graphs

Social Activism is a ‘strong-tie’ phenomenon when Social Networks are based on loose or weak ties

Social Activism requires financial or personal risk when most activists (or Slacktivists) on Networks are successful because they ask very little of the participants

And yet, this argument makes so many under lying assumptions it kinda boggles the mind. Gladwell himself defines the reinvention argument that he is disagreeing with as follows:

"With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns"

Why I'm sitting here perplexed is there was nothing in his article to suggest the contrary.

I don't have my Pdh. But I do have personal experience in being intimately involved in my early career with the environmental movement and helped to set an important legal precedent in Greece and in the European Union through the mobilizations and eventual legal case to stop the Acheloos River Diversion Project.

What I learned from that experience is that building a movement for change is much bigger than one communication technology or another. The strategic dynamic was much closer to how I think about network communications vs. traditional mass approaches.

How so?

We weren't about driving awareness for a single message. That wouldn't have led to action.

Rather, our approach was about creating a compelling relate-able storyline and then setting as many small fires in as many locations as possible. And then we watched to see which fires started to grow. The ones that did we threw more wood on and if the moment was right, some gasoline.

That involved local action in some cases, protests in others, Mass media of all different story types both inside and out of Greece as well as legal action on a National level. And there was more.

The question now looking back, is could Social Media have played a dramatic role in our efforts? Of course it could have. In fact, how could it have not?

If we want a more recent example, I look to the G20 protests here in Toronto. At the time I was reading an interesting debate happening between @Chanders and @AnnaTarkov about an article in the New York Times talking about Mass Media's influence over the language of Torture. It centred about a Harvard study that found newspapers had changed their wording of Waterboarding as Torture after America was accused of it. One could debate that this would then over a longer period of time, have influence over the public acceptability and definitions of torture.

I bring this tangent up because INFLUENCE is exactly what we are talking about here. With Social Activism, a core group of activist attempts to influence the wider population to some form of action. What now constitutes a valid action is at the heart of Gladwell's argument. So back to the G20.

It was interesting watching the media coverage over that period of the weekend. It started off with many small articles of police concerns, overviews of the black bloc, what Torontonains should expect, the new powers of the Police etc. When the protests got ugly, I saw a complete disconnect between what was being reported on Twitter on the ground vs. the mass media. It was pretty astounding. On the one hand, you see videos of peaceful protesters suddenly getting attacked by police for seemingly no reason, all the while the mass media was mostly reporting out of control protesters.

However, as the stories grew and the evidence of photos, videos and first person accounts from 'trusted' sources like Steve Pakin, I could actually see the media start to become more critical. They started to question police accounts and began to report the Social Media from on the street. It shifted their coverage and I would suggest then shifted the overall public perception over time (although the truth is many people still dismissed the later coverage). If this isn't what political activists hope to do, then I don't know what is?

Ok, so I get that this is hardly a rock solid research methodology and in fact, I would love it if some PhD student out there decided to start looking at the impact of Social Media on Mass Media converge and it's subsequent influence on political discourse and activism.

But to get back to the heart of the matter - to dismiss Social Media as a tool within an Activists arsenal simply based on the fact that in all cases it won't physically mobilize people ready to die for a cause....???

Well, while it might make a great New Yorker article, I think it's full of flaws and just dead wrong.


lots of great commentary on his post from others

Anil Dash
Sam Ladner

The Atlantic Readers

blog comments powered by Disqus
Real Time Web Analytics