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[liberationtech] Malcolm Gladwell on Traditional vs. Online Activism

Luke Allnutt AllnuttL at
Wed Sep 29 10:38:06 PDT 2010

Hello there. I?ve been lurking for a few weeks on this list and just 
wanted to introduce myself. I?m the editor in chief of Radio Free 
Europe/Radio Liberty?s English website and write a blog, Tangled Web, 
about the intersection of new technologies and foreign policy etc.

Anyway, I?m really enjoying the discussions on this list and hope to 
contribute more in the future. 

Here are some thoughts, blogged here
, about Gladwell?s recent article on digital activism. 

* My major problem with the piece is the way that Gladwell makes such a 
clear distinction between traditional activism and digital activism. In 
fact, the two overlap and complement each other. As Jillian C. York 
blogged, the two are false polls:  

[B]y drawing a distinct line between traditional? and ?digital? (or online 
and offline, if you prefer) activism, pundits and journalists are doing a 
disservice to both the utility of digital tools and to the resilience of 
traditional advocacy.

The reality is that these days a good deal of activism will have some kind 
of digital component. As a label, cyberdissident is becoming increasingly 
irrelevant. Activists fighting oppressive regimes want to get their 
messages out and, unlike politicians who tend to fetishise technology, 
they just want to use the most effective tool, whether that?s a print 
flyer, a sit-in, or a Facebook group -- or a combination of all of the 

Take Azerbaijan?s ?donkey bloggers?: labeling them digital activists is 
something of a misnomer. They?re young activists who, because they?re not 
living in a cave, have chosen to use digital tools to skewer their 
government. They also do old-world things like meet and rally. They?ve 
probably even been known to wave a placard now and again. But just because 
they have chosen to use Facebook and YouTube as weapons of choice, does 
that make them lazy and ineffective? 

Another big distinction Gladwell makes is between networks (weak, 
ineffective) and hierarchical structures (strong, effective). But the two 
have coexisted in the past and will continue to coexist. Activism has 
always had a mix of strong-tie relationships and weak-tie relationships. 
For instance, to use a Western model, there were the letter writers who 
met weekly in the church hall (strong ties) and then there were the people 
in the street who popped a few cents into a collection tin and got a lapel 
sticker in return (weak ties). To a degree, that dynamic has been 
recreated online. Nowadays, a few might gather to protest outside an 
embassy, while many will join a Facebook group. The dynamics of group 
involvement and the relative importance of various components of those 
groups were not clearly understood then and are certainly not now. 

* As Lina Srivastava writes, the problem with Gladwell?s article -- and in 
many other critiques of the role of new technologies -- is that he 
elevates the ?digital? as opposed to the ?activism.? This makes us focus 
on the computers rather than what people do with the computers. But I 
think journalists and digital activists are themselves partly to blame for 
this fetishizing. Even in our use of ?donkey bloggers? or 
?cyberdissidents? or ?Twitter revolution? -- the reader-friendly tags and 
boilerplates so loved by journalists -- we tend to overemphasize the 
technology at the expense of the activism. And as people who are 
enthusiastic about digital activism, we are all too happy to emphasize the 
technology when something is cool and new and successful.

* The problem with any assessment of the impact of digital technologies is 
that, as the excellent report ?Blogs And Bullets? points out, the evidence 
is still fragmentary and we are reliant on anecdote and intuition. 
Twitter, after all, is only four years old and it?s just too early to 
measure impact (it was always difficult to measure the impact of 
traditional activism as well). So articles or essays -- whether they be 
cyberutopian or cyberskeptic, to use the two extremes -- tend to trot out 
the same anecdotes again and again. In the cyberutopian camp, we have the 
open-source crowdsourcing project Ushahidi and the FARC protests in 
Colombia. And in the cyberskeptics camp, we have the critiques of the role 
played by social media in Moldova and Iran. It's just too early to know.

Iran now has become synonymous with the failure of social media (and 
there?s no doubt that Twitter?s significance was hugely exaggerated). My 
colleague, Persian Letters blogger Golnaz Esfandiari was quoted in the 
Gladwell piece, as she wrote a good article last year rightfully playing 
down Twitter?s role in the postelection unrest. So the reader might 
conclude that Iranians aren?t using social-networking tools at all in 
order to bring change to their country, but as Golnaz just blogged today, 
Iran's opposition continues to use Facebook for campaigning (they?re also 
launching a newspaper). 

Gladwell, like any gifted writer, is selective about his juxtaposition of 
anecdotes. The civil-rights movement is the mother of all anecdotes: it 
has everything, bravery, drama, a shared sense of moral clarity. That 
noble example is juxtaposed next to a few platitudes a U.S. official makes 
at a conference and a wild claim that Twitter be nominated for a Nobel 
Prize. Not exactly comparing like with like.

(As a side note, there?s a common implication in any article on 
?clicktavism? or ?slacktavism? that traditional activism is always 
presented as utterly selfless, noble, and involving ultimate sacrifices, 
unlike the kids of today with their fancy-pants phones and their lattes 
and their narcissism.)

* Throughout the article, I kept thinking -- and I don't want to get all 
Clay Shirky here -- wouldn't digital technology make that more effective. 
Those brave Greensboro protesters would still have sat at the counter, but 
couldn?t their cause be broadcast more quickly through social media? 
Couldn?t the offline activities of the committed core be amplified to a 
critical point by the weak-tied masses (those of us clicking ?like? and 
changing our avatars)? Gladwell?s argument is that it wouldn?t be, that we 
would be deterred from physically protesting because we had made an online 
?sacrifice,? but there just isn?t any compelling evidence to support 
either thesis. Or, while we?re doing counterfactuals, imagine the 
Montgomery bus boycott organized through Twitter and geo-location tools. 
There might have even been an app for that, written by some open-source 
whizz kid. Find the nearest car pool by logging in with your 
location-based phone. More flexibility and better organization could have 
meant a much larger number taking part.

Ultimately, Gladwell?s mistake is that he focuses on Revolutions rather 
than revolutions. The former are extremely rare but the latter are 
thankfully more common. We are so preoccupied with overthrowing 
governments and regime change, that we risk overlooking the incremental 
benefits that digital activism can bring everyday. (A hazing video in 
Armenia goes viral and leads to an officer?s conviction. A Russian 
blogger?s harrowing account of the state of a regional hospital trickles 
up into state-run media.) No, it?s not regime change, but it?s undoubtedly 
making a difference. 
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