Joho the BlogGladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government - Joho the Blog

Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government

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.

34 Responses to “Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government”

  1. My very simple assessment of the problem with Gladwell and his argument:

    Malcolm Gladwell is a linear, deterministic thinker as revealed by his argument based on supposedly mutually exclusive polarities.

    The world is complex and its dynamics – especially in a massively interconnected (UCaPP) world – are complex.

    Linear determinism does a relatively poor job of accounting for complexity and emergent phenomena.

  2. Maybe the truly important question is the part that you haven’t considered in Gladwell’s article: “Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

    When you say “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”, you are very right, sir. But you don’t mention the difference in the distribution of attention and energy that the multiplicity of interactions causes. It catches on or it doesn’t, right; but it doesn’t catch on most of the time, and when it does, it’s in a limited scale, and the impact is minimal. You don’t change the world that way.

  3. […] / Joho the Blog:Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government  —  It seems to me that Malcolm Gladwell’s debunking of the claim that the […]

  4. […] Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government ( […]

  5. Direct action from boycott to march to terrorism can be seen as a means of communicating to the public – and thus an indication of a lack of a means of communication via less aggressive means.

    It is not “We are sending a firm message to this shopkeeper, or to this government”, but “This is our grievance. Does anyone/everyone else recognise it and support a remedy? If so, join us”

    The Internet in providing a means of public broadcasting with near zero cost of entry thus provides a far less aggressive means of communicating grievances to the public. Support and remedy is thus more likely to be achieved via democratic means.

    The only remaining problem is the capture of democracy by immortal and plutocratic corporations. The public can now communicate to each other en masse, but their voice to government has become subsidiary.

    And there are forces busily working at ways and means of once again* suppressing sedition, e.g. “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act”, which is effectively censorship/disconnection of dissidents on a pretext of copyright infringement – since it can be achieved with only accusation – no evidence needed.

    Suspicion of infringement of an abridgement of free speech as grounds for a far greater abridgement is a tad Kafkaesque don’t you think?

    * The Statute of Anne effectively instituted a mechanism for the suppression of sedition, by granting the consequently beholden Stationers’ Company the control/monopoly they coveted. ACTA is a reprise of this lobbying, but on a global scale and directed at the Internet rather than the press.

  6. Thanks for this. I was just reading this article on my Kindle earlier this morning and had pretty much the same reaction.

    Unfortunately, a lot of otherwise healthy debate about social media and it’s social value is blunted by strawman arguments that rely on the reader mistaking the visibility of the opposing arguments as leadership.

  7. 1) You may enjoy my old article on similar themes “If you want to change the world, a blog may not be the place to start” – “Getting ideas into the system can be more difficult than writing web pages and hoping somebody reads them.”

    2) Evangelists have a great deal – They’re allowed to imply and give the impression of all sort of fantastic hype, and when someone calls them on it, they can then turn around and cry “Strawman” (as well as lets-move-on and that-was-then, etc.). Nice work if you can get it :-(.

  8. Chicken or egg? Does a widespread belief that change needs to happen, or has already happened in people’s minds, get initiated by Net communication. Or, does Net communication spread the the idea that change is afoot?

    In any case the idea of change or belief or culturally constrained thinking has no reality until a group manifests it in the physical world. Any communication medium can start that from talking face-to-face to Facebook. (Yes, I say this to offend the NLP people!)

    Back to chickens and eggs and the fact that the brains of people today are not different than the brains of people 60 or 160 or 1600 years ago. But what goes into them and how they extend to the information reserves they have access to, does impact behavior by tripping old hardwired structures in them installed by evolution. That is the interesting bit.


  9. All great points. I especially like your point re: an open sourced rideshare system contributing to nonviolent civil disobedience. In fact, this is exactly what’s been happening during the last few years – check out the rideshare boards for the recent protest wave against AZ SB1070, for example:

    My take on the same article:

  10. […] has caused quite a stir. And I’m rather late to the commenting party, as smart people here, here, and here have already done a fine job of challenging some of the assertions Gladwell […]

  11. […] Response: David Weinberger, Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government […]

  12. I like how in the last paragraph you equated “social media” with “the Net” (i.e. the Internet). That is also the impression I have of the way people use the term “social media”. For some of the humorous ways that Gladwell’s deed contradicted his actions (and in particular how his argument was refuted during the CoverITLive session), see

    ;) nmw

  13. oops — deeds/actions contradicted his words (sorry about that, Chief ;)

  14. Hi David,

    Great post, thanks for sharing this.

    I agree that Gladwell makes some great points, but he misses the ways that online networks can aid activism at a variety of levels of risk (from the life endangering kinds to the very casual).

    I also think, the Tea Party Patriots today vs. the Obama campaign in 2008 pose a fascinating comparison of more or less hierarchical vs. network-driven organizations.

    I just wrote on this and Gladwell’s article, referencing your thinking, Jonathan Rauch’s and Clay Shirky’s, here:

    David Rogers
    Columbia Business School

  15. The net is a tool and like any tool can be used for good or ill.

    Here’s another piece of the puzzle, from Rob Weir:

    Always remember that the “net neutrality” debate is only about one thing: censorship. It has never been about anything else; it cannot be about anything else.

  16. For a much more informed take on this, please see this video, especially the last three or four minutes:

    (The video is in English, although the page in which it is inserted is in Spanish. That page belongs to the newspaper I work for.)

  17. […] Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government […]

  18. Where you say ‘the Net affects the most entrenched of institutions by changing the ecology around them’ reminds me of this Bucky Fuller quote:

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

  19. mwiik, that quote is quite correct. You can argue until the cows come home that copyright and patent are unconstitutional instruments of injustice, but the only thing that will actually change anyone’s mind is demonstrating the exchange of intellectual work for money without the privilege of a monopoly in manufacture and sale of copies. And that new model, that makes the old model obsolete is

  20. […] read”! Allein schon, weil es diese kluge Replik von David Weinberger provoziert hat (”Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government”). Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, 4. Oktober […]

  21. Gladwell is a persuader, not an analyst. He has a point of view and connects anecdotes that compose a great story supporting that point of view.

    Gladwell could convincingly argue that white is black; he’s a great writer and entertainer.

  22. […] of criticism last week, and it continued to come in this week. Harvard scholar David Weinberger made several of the common critiques of the article, focusing on the idea that Gladwell is tearing down a straw man who believes that […]

  23. […] with his main points, not surprisingly Twitter’s founders among them, however, I found David Weinberger’s reponse to Gladwell’s article most fitting. First of all, thankfully, he exposed a structure, then he […]

  24. Hi. You are always very thoughtful. In your short post though I think you’re basically conceding that Gladwell is persuasive on all his points. His presentation suggests that the Twitter-like-time sink is a problem in the context of social change. For me there are two big questions- how do young people, who choose their news sources, learn about and get activated by human problems? Second, isn’t energy devoted to online media – nearly 24/7 for a great number of people – subtracting from total energy available to successfully tackle, one at a time, a societal problem – income inequality, human rights abuses, global money grabbing, etc. My main problem with online media use is that it sidetracks would-be activists – thus, good intentions are thinly applied using online media – and the new-activists don’t have the experience to know that a lot of learning can be done by working with others, on the ground and day-to-day. The maturing of the civil rights movement is an example of this synergy as is the nonviolent movement of Gandhi. I would like to see activist-young people send their considerable energy “outward” – learning to be strategic and joining with organizations/leaders to solve the world’s problems. Online media can help with information sharing at the speed of lightning.

  25. […] a 200-word commentary that maintains his position without emendation. (I was among the many who replied to Gladwell’s initial article. And Mathew Ingram has an excellent response to […]

  26. […] a 200-word commentary that maintains his position without emendation. (I was among the many who replied to Gladwell’s initial article. And Mathew Ingram has an excellent response to […]

  27. […] a 200-word commentary that maintains his position without emendation. (I was among the many who replied to Gladwell’s initial article. And Mathew Ingram has an excellent response to […]

  28. […] also an interesting read on Joho’s Blog and his take on Gladwell’s […]

  29. […] Pour David Weinberger, Gladwell a raison de démystifier la croyance que l'internet, par sa seule force, va balayer toutes les institutions traditionnelles qui se dressent sur le chemin de la grande révolte populiste qu'incarnerait le réseau. Oui, le Net ne remplacera pas toutes les formes traditionnelles de gouvernance et d'organisation. Oui, le Slacktivism, ces internautes qui signent des pétitions et les relaient en passant rarement à des actions plus concrètes, est bien présent. Pas sûr que nous en soyons déjà à l'âge adulte de l'activisme sur Facebook. […]

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  32. […] Response: David Weinberger, Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government […]

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