As soon as I read Malcolm Gladwell‘s New Yorker article “Small Change; Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” I knew a firestorm was about to be unleashed across the Internet. It wasn’t so much that I thought Gladwell was wrong, it was just that he seemed a bit confused, and I waited patiently for people like Jonah Lehrer and Henry Jenkins to respond, since it was inevitable.
I’ll start by saying that I’ve read Gladwell’s work and I have much respect for his ideas. I will also say that I’ve read Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody, the book (and main set of premises which Gladwell is attacking) along with other of Shirky’s work and I agree with him more. But I am going to leave my bias out of this and return to what’s misguided about Gladwell’s argument.
This past weekend, I attended InfoCamp in Seattle, where I had a conversation with a number of other attendees about whether social networking made us more mobile or more stationary. While they pointed out that some people don’t leave their computers anymore since all their friends are on Facebook or World of Warcraft, I pointed out that all of my friends on Facebook are people I know in the physical world, but have connected with online to strengthen those ties we have. With Twitter, much of the same is true, though it often happens in reverse; I follow someone on Twitter and begin conversations with them, then often meet them in real life, converting a “weak” tie to a “strong” one, and continuing to use Twitter to strengthen those bonds. Gladwell’s argument that social media ties and activism are viewed just as civil rights ties and activism is, as Jenkins puts it, “comparing apples and oranges or in this case, movements and platforms.” Gladwell states:
“The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960″
I disagree with that on many counts. I don’t think that me clicking a petition online is the same as marching in the streets for a cause, but I do consider both of them to be forms of activism. I do consider my Facebook friends to be real friends, because I have met them in real life and continue dialoguing with them across platforms, whether it be text, email, voice, skype, Twitter, Facebook or most often, a combination of them. But I find it problematic how Gladwell seeks to draw these lines between such activities and networks. As Kevin Driscoll, a student of Jenkins’, puts it:
Creating a hard distinction between “traditional” activism and “social media” activism is a dead end. Whether the medium is Twitter, pirate radio, a drum, or lanterns hung in a Boston church tower, “real world” activism depends on the tactical selection of social media technologies. Rather than fret about “slacktivism” or dismiss popular new tools because of their hype, we should be looking critically at history for examples of network campaigns like Frown Power that take advantage of their culture and technological circumstances to effect new kinds of social change.
And that is where I would like to close; encouraging us all to use the best tools we can to create and sustain our digital connections, not because I believe they are as “strong” as real world ties, but because I believe they both have value and will both be necessary for any sort of activism in the future.