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[liberationtech] Malcolm Gladwell on Traditional vs. Online Activism

Michael H Goldhaber michael at
Mon Sep 27 13:03:00 PDT 2010

I have not seen piece. However tactics of movements that work constantly change, as they must, since repeating the same old thing becomes too easy so that too many different movements or would-be movements try it and drown each other out; the media and politicians cease to pay much attention unless it vastly outdoes earlier movements; and effective means to block well-worn tactics prevent them from succeeding. The Tea Party movement apparently has successfully used twitter to bring out voters to reshape the Republican establishment — a negative example from my point of view, but still........

On Sep 27, 2010, at 9:49 AM, Pranesh Prakash wrote:

> I largely agree with the piece (having quickly skimmed through it) that
> the differences are often underestimated. However, very
> impressionistic-ally, there are a few things that Gladwell does not
> consider, or consider adequately:
> 1. The role of the *traditional* media in advocacy.
> 	The traditional media are very powerful in amplifying weak ties as
> well. They play a big role in both traditional *and* social media-based
> activism.  And Twitter and Facebook are easy places to find new stories
> for traditional media journalists.
> 2. Even traditional political advocacy can actually be based on weak ties.
> 	Consider Amnesty International's letter-writing campaigns.  Very
> strong, very political, requires little action, and is many times very
> effective.  There are Amnesty posters from the '70s that have a
> typewriter with the caption: "This is one of the most powerful weapons
> in the fight for human rights".  And more recently: "Saliva saves lives"
> and "Postman topples dictator".
> 	However, I mostly agree with him that social media-based advocacy is
> largely based on weak ties, and that greatly limits it.  That having
> been said, a large movement of weak ties can (and quite usually does)
> have a small core of strong ties that keeps it going.  Thus social
> media-based advocacy can help convert some of those with only weak ties
> into those with stronger ties.  This is thus a case of one complementing
> the other.  Thus, I agree with Mary that this distinction is one of
> degree and of tendency, rather than absolute.
> 3. I'm still mulling over his distinction between high-risk and low-risk.
> 	Revolutionaries of the traditional sort (the re-emergent Red Brigade,
> for instance) have put digital technologies, though not "social media",
> to great use: to coordinate murders and to cover their trail with
> encryption (OpenPGP).  Many of the emergent networks of the early
> Internet were actually traditional advocacy groups (consumer rights
> groups, environmentalist groups, etc.).  So is his point about digital
> technologies or about social media-based activism?
> I will have to read the piece more carefully to see where exactly he
> draws the lines between digital tools and social media, and the links he
> makes between traditional advocacy groups and the media (if any).
> On 09/27/2010 08:15 PM, Mary Joyce wrote:
>> ... in the current* New Yorker*:
>> Some questions:
>>   1. Gladwell draws an absolute distinction between the *strong ties* of
>>   offline activism (example of the civil rights movement) and the *weak
>>   ties* of online activism (examples of Darfur Facebook groups). Is this an
>>   accurate distinction?
>>   2. Gladwell reiterates the observation that offline activism is *
>>   hierarchical* and strategic while online activism is *decentralized* and
>>   ad hoc.  Does this distinction doom online activism to failure or just
>>   indicate a new mechanics of activism?
>>   3. Gladwell argues that centralized and hierarchical protest movements,
>>   like the civil rights movement, which "help us persevere in the face of
>>   danger" and "promote strategic and disciplined activity" are unequivocally
>>   more *effective* than a decentralized and networked movements.  Might
>>   this statement not be true under repressive regimes?
>> Mary
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> -- 
> Pranesh Prakash
> Programme Manager
> Centre for Internet and Society
> W: | T: +91 80 40926283
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