Malcolm Gladwell is once again stirring controversy on the Internets with an article in The New Yorker magazine in which he sets out to debunk the notion that social media will transform social activism. Lots of people are taking issue with Gladwell's piece, as he surely hoped, and I am adding my voice to the chorus: Malcolm Gladwell, you naughty intellectual imp, you are totally and utterly wrong.
That said, ironically I agree with what I believe to be Gladwell's real argument: most of us are selfish and self-absorbed, and social networks probably won't change that. But in typical fashion Gladwell erects a whole theoretical structure in an attempt to show that this is somehow a particular flaw of online social networks, rather than just part of human nature. And this is wrong because it discounts the possibility that social networks could be used to catalyze and organize real activism -- provided that people care enough.
Gladwell begins by asserting that online social networks are largely characterized by superficial, low-intensity bonds between people who often don't really know each other. These indifferent connections, he argues, don't provide sufficient motivation for people to engage in the kind of dangerous, high-risk activism that can brave violence to actually overcome entrenched social injustice -- like civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather, he says, people were (and are) usually recruited into genuine high-risk activism by close friends and relatives. In support of this, he cites the work of Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, who examined the social connections of civil rights activists in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 and found that most of the ones who stuck it out had close friends who were also participating, while those who dropped out were less likely to have a close personal connection to the cause.
Gladwell may be correct that "High-risk activism... is a 'strong-tie' phenomenon," but he is far too sweeping in his statement that "The platforms of social media are built around weak ties." Sure, there are plenty of people with Facebook friends they've never met, but they're also likely to be Facebook friends with their spouses, children, parents, siblings and friends. In other words, social networks are whatever people make of them, and therefore tend to be composed of a mix of high-intensity and low-intensity links, "real" relationships mixed in with superficial ones.
Gladwell also argues that "Social networks are effective at increasing participation -- by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires." And again, he may be right: getting people to "show support" for a cause is easy enough when you just have to click "Like," rather than, say, put your life on the line. He points to the example of various Facebook groups devoted to Darfur, noting that the average financial contribution of members to one group (with over a million members) is $0.09. "In other words," Gladwell writes, "Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro."
But we are also a long way from Darfur: what, I wonder, would Gladwell have the Darfur activists do? For one thing, the implied comparison of the U.S. South in the 1950s and 1960s and present-day Darfur is way, way off-base. Yes, the South was a very dangerous place for civil rights activists, who acted bravely to change an intolerant society at great personal risk to themselves. But while opposition was entrenched and sometimes violent, most Southern whites disapproved of vigilante violence against civil rights activists -- a fact which strategists like Martin Luther King, Jr. used to successfully drive a wedge between hardcore and moderate segregationists. Civil rights activists also had sympathetic supporters in other parts of the country, including presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a majority of the Supreme Court. By contrast, in Darfur whole villages have been exterminated by their neighbors with the help of the government in a combined civil war and genocide. By most estimates, several hundred people were killed for participating in the civil rights movement; meanwhile perhaps 300,000 people have died in Darfur as a result of violence, displacement, and malnutrition.
This goes to the heart of Gladwell's argument that online activism (Sudan, now) can't compare to the real, old-fashioned kind (U.S. South, 1950s) -- because the two test cases selected by Gladwell are in fact not at all comparable. The situation in Darfur is so unbelievably, unrelentingly brutal that even the most stoic civil rights activist would probably think twice about challenging the janjaweed with non-violent resistance out in the Sudanese desert; there is no civil disobedience without civilization. By the same token, Darfur doesn't come close to the U.S. civil rights movement in terms of sheer emotional intensity, for the obvious reason that the latter was much closer to home. This certainly may reflect the high-intensity, low-intensity dynamic set forth by Gladwell, as most Americans probably don't have any personal connections to Darfur, but I don't really see what is has to do with social media as an activist tool. Put another way, if Gladwell doesn't see many examples of truly effective social media activism at work in contemporary American society, is this because social media aren't up the challenge, or simply because nothing has yet inspired Americans to take up social media for a cause, the way civil rights galvanized the country?
I also have to take issue with the basic assumption that "low-intensity," diffuse, and impersonal activist support isn't really meaningful. Again, just look at the civil rights movement: while only about 1,000 activists participated in the Freedom Summer in 1964, and a similar number took part in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, how many Americans were influenced watching these events on TV? And of these, how many voted for politicians who supported civil rights? Would we call this support insignificant, despite their lack of close personal connections to activists in harm's way? Today's online social networks are updated, interactive versions of TV: in addition to influencing opinion, they allow ordinary people to register their support and see just how many other people agree with them. Maybe this isn't activism per se -- but is it meaningless? Indeed, while individual activists may be recruited through high-intensity bonds, success may depend on aggregating huge numbers of individuals to express just the kind of low-intensity support that Gladwell disdains -- a purpose for which social media are, as he admits, admirably well-suited.
Observing that civil rights activism was disciplined and hierarchical, Gladwell also argues that social networks -- with their flat, egalitarian, or "horizontal" structures -- aren't capable of making decisions or executing them in an orderly fashion. In short, trying to get people to agree on goals and cooperate is like herding cats (my words, not his). Networks, in his words, are "the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies." But this is a false opposition: why can't a network, connecting individuals to each other, also become or give rise to a hierarchy, in which superiors organize subordinates to achieve a common goal?
Once again, Gladwell is confusing the way most people happen to use social media now, as a casual pastime with no serious purpose, with its real but unrealized potential as an unprecedented means for organizing huge numbers of people -- if those people really care about an issue. On that note, there is no doubt in my mind that in the right circumstances a charismatic leader with an inspiring cause could use social media to create the sort of hierarchical, disciplined organization Gladwell envisions... and with a speed and scale that would leave previous activists awestruck.