It seems to me that Malcolm Gladwell’s debunking of the claim that the Net will empower political revolutions is right about one big thing, but wrong about a whole lot more.
Because of Gladwell’s often-emulated twisty way into a topic, here is my take at an outline of of the article, so that we can see its argument better.
In 1960, four college students staged a sit-in in NC. Within a week, sit-ins had started to spread like “a fever.”
Gladwell now states the claim he is going debunk: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism.” He then points to world events that have been claimed to support that view.
But, (he continues) those events were not really brought about by social media. Why would we think they were? It’s not due just to over-enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” It is really our understanding of activism that is at issue.
Now, back to the sit-ins. They were dangerous. Civil rights activism took courage. That courage required strong ties to other activists. This was true not just of the civil rights movement in the US, but is a general characteristic of activism.
But, “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all.” Social media (Twitter, Facebook) are all about weak ties. Weak ties are “in many ways a wonderful thing…But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Social media activism works when little is asked of people.
Activism requires not just strong ties, but also strong, centralized, hierarchical organization. Not networks. You need a hierarchy “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment…”
As an example, Gladwell ridicules the opening story in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, about how “the crowd” got a smart phone returned to its rightful owner. “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”
Gladwell is right, in my view, to debunk the over-enthusiastic belief that the Net would sweep away all traditional institutions that stand in the way of the great populist uprising.
He is also right to debunk the notion that the Net would replace all traditional forms of governance and organization.
At this point, however, those are strawpeople. Find me someone who believes that these days.
The more plausible belief is that the Net affects the most entrenched of institutions by changing the ecology around them. So, citizen journalism has not obviated the need for professional journalism and traditional news media. Rather, a new symbiotic ecology (hmm, mixing metaphors) has arisen. Likewise, amateur scientists have not replaced professional scientists and their institutions, but the new ecology allows for the interaction of everyone with an interest, and this is changing how science is done, how it is evaluated, and how it has an effect. Likewise, the Dean campaign — and every national campaign after it — understood that it was not enough to have a social network, but that that network must be moved to take action out in the real streets of America.
Likewise, I venture that few believe that Facebook or Twitter on their own are going to bring about revolutionary political change. But that doesn’t mean that political change is unaffected by them. As the Tea Party looks like it’s rolling to victory in 2010, try to imagine that it could exist much less succeed without social media. It also needed money from Big Interests, the attention of mainstream media, and non-Net communication channels. But, who is arguing otherwise? The ecology has changed.
Further, Gladwell misses the point about strong and weak ties. He’s right that committed activism requires strong ties. But it doesn’t require many: Three like-minded friends can be enough to embolden a college student to risk sitting-in at a segregated lunch counter. Social networking services facilitate strong ties because strong ties come from weak ones, and because casual interactions among people with strong ties can strengthen those ties. Further, having lots of weak ties can encourage political action by making that action a common cause: Wow, everyone I know is going to the protest march!
Further, the effect of courageous activists (enabled through their strong ties to other activists) is magnified insofar as it emboldens and affects a far wider swath of the population. Networks of weak ties spread ideas, information, and enthusiasm faster and more effectively than letter-writing campaigns or newspaper ads. From these networks of loose ties come the new activists, the supporters of activists, and an engaged citizenry that can vote (or throw) the bums out. Courageous activists succeed within a population that is not as engaged or courageous.
Gladwell also, in my opinion, is mistaken to treat networks and hierarchies as if they were mutually exclusive. He points to the massive organizational effort it took to sustain the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. They created a large, efficient carpool service, and had a hundred full-time staffers. So, what exactly was the hierarchy required for? “Discipline and strategy,” Gladwell says, although his example also stresses organization. To this I have three reactions.
First, hierarchies are indeed good at some things. But hierarchies can work with networks. That’s how national political campaigns work in this country, for example. Hierarchies and networks are not exclusive. And networks can be powerful tools for hierarchies. Likewise, networks are never entirely flat. They can have a local center that makes decisions and organizes actions.
Second, Gladwell dismisses the contribution networks could have made to the bus boycott by pointing to the shallowness of tweets (vs. ML King’s messages from jail), the messiness of Wikipedia, and some unexplained problem with communicating through Facebook. This is sloppy from the likes of Gladwell. No one thinks MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech really would have been better if whittled down to 140 characters. But, tweets are a good way to drive people to read a longer work, and tweets are a good way of alerting a crowd when action is required. Gladwell is also wrong to say that Wikipedia is mired in a “ceaseless pattern of correction and revision.” And Facebook messaging is great for communicating among those with strong and weak ties. Three misses out of three, by my way of thinking.
Third, the strengths of hierarchies that Gladwell points to are not totally absent from networks:
Networks have their own way of making strategy: Someone puts it forward, and it catches on (including via networks of weak ties) or it doesn’t.
As far as organizing goes, there is a reason that every movement for political change now uses the Internet: it is superb for organizing. Think how much easier it would have been to set up the carpool system with its “forty-eight dispatchers and forty-two pickup stations”? An online, on-demand system would have freed up the forty-eight dispatchers, and would have made a “pickup station” out of wherever you are. Further, it would have been written overnight, for free, and open-sourced so it could be replicated in town after town and country after country.
So, Gladwell is right that the Net by itself doesn’t cause tyrannies to fall. He’s right that activism requires courage and determination. He’s right that we — not all of us, but a group of us that includes me — over-sold the Net in this regard. But he’s picking on what’s now a strawperson, and, more important, his argument pays no heed to the truly important question: How the Net, in a real world in which old institutions aren’t going away so fast, is altering the context within which brave activism occurs, spreads, and has effect.
[The next day:] R.A on the Economist site reminds us that hierarchies are fragile while networks are robust and resilient. Good point. Gladwell’s model of political upheaval seems to assume a relatively open society that will tolerate a movement with identifiable leaders. In more repressive regimes, hierarchies are too easy to disrupt.