Malcolm Gladwell's take on social media is like a nun's likely review of the Kama Sutra — self-righteous and misguided by virtue of voluntary self-exclusion from the subject. But while the nun's stance reflects adherence to a moral code, Gladwell's merely discloses a stubborn opinion based on little more than a bystander’s observations.
Gladwell, who has built a wildly successful career curating and synthesizing other people's research for the common reader’s consumption, has been surprisingly remiss in examining the social web’s impact on various forms of activism. In a recent New Yorker article, in fact, he declared that "the revolution will not be tweeted" — that social media are practically useless when it comes to serious activism. While I don't question his remarkable intelligence or unique talent — I fully subscribe to the work of psychologist Howard Gardner, whose latest book, Five Minds for the Future, demonstrates the value of the kind of synthesizer mind Gladwell possesses — I find it incongruous for a man who has abstained from participation in social media to weigh in on their value for civic action. (Gladwell has a page on Facebook but not a profile. He exists on the site much as Van Gogh does: you can’t “friend” him but you can “like” him. The profiles set up in his name, as Gladwell himself points out, are phonies created by someone else.)
Gladwell's argument rests on two main ideas: first, that the social web is woven of what he calls "weak ties" between people, whereas activism is driven by "strong ties." Second, that social networks are inherently devoid of hierarchy, which is central to the success of any organized civic movement. There is certainly strong sociological evidence to support the latter parts of both statements, but his claims about the nature of online social networks are myopic, occluded by highly selective evidence.
Let’s look at Gladwell's definition of activism, or lack thereof. His examples come from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and, more specifically, the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. While these were nonviolent confrontations, Gladwell points to the risk of violence and personal harm as the litmus test for true engagement. On the social web, he says, such high-stake risks don't exist, which makes web-driven activism an oxymoron.
We need a definition of what activism is, not what it is not, before we can argue for or against its existence. As far as I'm concerned, activism is any action or set of actions, be it organized, grassroots or self-initiated, that aims to resolve a problem that diminishes the quality of life of individuals, communities or society. The civil rights movement is one example: it sought to bring equality and justice across racial borders. The suffrage movement is another: it sought to give women equal rights as political and social agents.
As democracy in the West (for lack of a better term) has evolved over the past century, however, certain basic battles for human rights have been won, at least on an institutional, political and legal level. While racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry may be alive and well in individuals, they are not condoned by our culture. Instead, the evolution of technology and society has brought on new challenges to democracy, calling for new focal points of activism. For instance, data democracy and free speech have become contemporary battlegrounds.
While I am the first to admit that the social web provokes what the New York Times writer Barnaby Feder has termed "slacktivism" — the tendency to passively affiliate ourselves with causes for the sake of peer approval rather than taking real, high-stakes action to support them – we have ample evidence that the social web not only brings critical awareness to issues of humanitarian and ecological importance, but also incites action around them.
In his fascinating research on social networks, the Harvard scholar Nicholas Christakis has noted that online social networks are "the same but different" compared to real-life ones. In a lot of ways, this is also the case with the exercise of justice and injustice on the social web. Censorship and cyberattacks represent two particularly prominent violations of human rights and freedom of speech. Increasingly, countries like China, Uzbekistan, Tunisia and Moldova are practicing extreme censorship of online activists and bloggers, and cyberattacks continue to be used as weapons of oppression. Earlier this year, 30 Egyptian political bloggers were detained for their anti-sectarian views and in 2009, the antigovernmental sentiments of a 34-year-old Georgian economics professor blogging under the alias CYXYMU led to a cyberattack that disrupted service for hundreds of millions of internet users on Twitter, Facebook and LiveJournal, as the attackers took down entire sites in an attempt to silence just this one voice.
In a recent talk in Zurich, Wired UK editor David Rowan referred to the activism of the social web with the example of Abdulkarim El-Khewani, a Yemeni journalist whose six-year-old daughter was roughed up after government officials raided his house in June 2007 to arrest him because of his investigative work on petroleum corruption. While his case received attention from local press and human rights activists, it wasn't until the following year, when the Yemeni activist group Sisters Arabic Forum for Human Rights put up a YouTube video of his young daughter Eba recounting her father's arrest, that the world took notice. Eventually, the case reached the U.S. State Department, which added to the pressure to free him. El-Khewani, who had been sentenced to six years in prison, received a presidential pardon. Upon his release, he told a reporter that he persevered because he felt he wasn't alone; the world was on his side.
These new forms of violence are very real, posing threats to the personal security and, in many cases, lives of those who are deemed dissident. They transgress multiple pillars of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights — namely, Article 12 ("No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."), Article 19 ("Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.") and, in the worst of political regimes, Article 28 ("Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised.")
By Gladwell's definition, these acts of violence, which pose real risks, should validate the work of what Google's Public Policy Blog calls "digital refugees" — and the support of their social networks — as genuine, high-stakes activism.
Ultimately, Gladwell's mistake is seeing online and offline social networks as disjointed mechanisms. Hierarchies do exist online, and while the top of the pyramid may often be represented by an offline eminence — say, a presidential candidate — the bottom of the pyramid, which supports the entire movement, is composed of online authorities with degrees of influence, such as the vocal supporters who amplify the candidate's message across the social web, engaging new adherents along the way. Anyone doubting the viability of this model is invited to review Barack Obama's presidential campaign, which was largely orchestrated via social media.
Hierarchies also exist within the social web and are particularly useful in promoting an understanding of causes. Someone with a large following on Twitter can draw attention to an issue, which then trickles down his or her social graph, reaching a wider and wider audience. And just to reiterate, while awareness is certainly not a sufficient condition for activism, it is a necessary one.
Gladwell argues that the reason four black students dared to plant themselves at a Greensboro lunch counter in the first place was that the protestors were close friends, providing one another with enough support and even peer pressure to withstand a potentially violent reception. The social web, he claims, fails to foster such strong relationships. Again, he presents a false cut-and-dried distinction between online and offline communities. While connections on Facebook and, more so, Twitter require minimal familiarity, it is increasingly common for online acquaintances to deepen into real, offline friendships. (When a commenter made this point in The New Yorker's live Q&A with Gladwell last week, the author promptly and derisively dismissed the suggestion. His exact words: “At last! A positive side effect of social media! I would guess it has improved the typing skills of many users as well.”)
Anecdotally, for what it's worth, I've met online both my best friend in the world and the only person with whom I've ever maybe-possibly been in love. I didn’t seek out either of these connections through online dating sites and the like, but encountered them through the organic intersection of our paths as directed by the nature of our work — the same old-fashioned way people have always met strangers who go on to become something more. What originated as weak ties ended up industrial-strength connections. And based on countless conversations I've had with other friends (many of whom I've also met online and are now very much a part of my "real-life" social circle), I am not an exception.
What does this have to do with activism? It's simple. Online communities broaden our scope of empathy. (The digital anthropologist Stefana Broadbent has done some interesting work in that vein.) They do so by introducing new issues to our collective consciousness and exposing us to the lives these issues affect. In cases where our "in-group" lacks direct experience of such concerns, empathy is the missing link between awareness and action — it's what enables us to act for the well-being of others, as in the case of El-Khewani.
Maybe Wikipedia, as Gladwell argues, wouldn't have helped Dr. Martin Luther King – the question is moot because it takes new ecosystems of authority and tries to retrofit them to old political structures – but sites like ScraperWiki do help the data democracy fighters of today and platforms like HelpMeInvestigate harness the social web to support those working toward one of the most critical issues in digital activism: political and institutional transparency.
Historic protests are being organized on Facebook. In 2008, in Colombia, a country where the largest public protest to date had been attended by 20,000 people, a Facebook campaign orchestrated by a young engineer incited an estimated 4.8 million people to participate in 365 protests against the Revolutionary Armed Forces known as FARC. In 2009, a similar Facebook effort in Bulgaria brought together the largest public protests since the fall of communism, which resulted in the resignation of several Parliament members accused — and later convicted — of corruption. In a recent speech on internet freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the example of a 13-year-old boy who used the social web to organize blood drives after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008. And, most recently, Adam Penenberg used Twitter in a fine piece of investigative journalism to uncover the details of a $131-million death verdict against Ford that traditional media had failed to access.
Most human rights violations, from discrimination to genocide, can be attributed to one or both of two root causes: pluralistic ignorance (the tendency of a group’s members to incorrectly believe that the majority condones an injustice) and diffusion of responsibility (the conviction that someone else will take action against the injustices we are aware of). It takes a critical mass of awareness and assignment of responsibility for injustice to end. While the social web, with its inherent anonymity and predilection for slacktivism, may do little in the way of assigning responsibility, it has a monumental effect on awareness. Today, it is impossible to participate actively in the social web and be unaware of the existence of climate change or Aung San Suu Kyi. And while many will join a Facebook group as a badge of affiliation with a cause rather than take real action, a few will be driven by social-media-engendered empathy and indignation to start NGOs, invent humanitarian design solutions, or lobby in Congress.
Examples span the entire spectrum of activism – from access to knowledge (such as TED's thriving online community of volunteer translators, who have made thousands of TED talks available in over 75 languages) to humanitarian fundraising (like Amanda Rose's Twestival, the Twitter-powered global grassroots organization that raised more than $250,000 for Charity Water's clean drinking water work in 2009 and more than $460,000 for Concern Worldwide's education work in 2010) to humanitarian crisis management (such as Ushahidi's crowdsourced maps of disaster information during the Haiti and Chile earthquakes that wiped out traditional information infrastructures).
In light of these examples and many more out there, I find Gladwell's contention that "innovators tend to be solipsists" particularly disheartening. (Though I should be careful – Gladwell isn't sparing with insults; he called a Huffington Post writer who challenged his declarations about social media a “narcissist.”) Perhaps, after all, his is a failure of recognizing not the sociology of activism but the psychology of altruism as a backbone of the social web's capacity for good.
Ultimately, most injustice is about marginalization; an individual or group is denied resources available to the rest of society. In the civil rights era, the boundaries were often about access to public space as a designator of status and equality — back versus front of the bus, sit-down tables versus lunch counter. In the digital era, boundaries frequently pertain to one’s access to information. But just as our notion of public space has evolved to encompass digital space and the data it contains, our definition of activism should be modified to incorporate efforts to protect speech and provide access in this new public realm. To negate the power of the social web as a mechanism of this kind of activism is to deny the evolution of the social planes on which justice and injustice play out.
As the internet scholar Evgeny Morozov has famously said, "Technology doesn’t necessarily pry more information from closed regimes; rather, it allows more people access to information that is available." But access is the first tile in a domino effect of awareness, empathy and action. The power of the social web lies in the sequence of its three capacities: To inform, to inspire and to incite.
Viva la #revolución.