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Where Malcom Gladwell Left Off: Social Media & Next Generation Democracy

This post originally appeared on my blog, http://wethegoverati.wordpress.com

Last month Malcom Gladwell wrote an article in the New Yorker: “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.”

I’ve been thinking about this article ever since it came out, and people have asked me to respond on several occasions. When I read Next Generation Democracy and BYO started helping the author (and now friend) Jared Duval, I realized it was the perfect opportunity.

Its not that Malcom Gladwell is wrong in his article. Its just one sided.

He starts the article by describing a lunch counter sit in that took place in the Woolworths in Greensboro North Carolina in February of 1960, and that spurred a movement in which 70,000 students eventually took part.

These nonviolent actions were a core component of the civil rights movement, and although the protesters advocated peaceful solutions, their lives and limbs were often in danger.

Gladwell is clearly fond of what he describes as this old form of social activism, and uses the article to take issue with the assertion that “the new tools of social media have reinvented social activism.”

He spends the rest of the article deriding all the ways that social media have degraded activism, instead of looking for ways that it enhances it. His primary claims are as follows:

  • The life-threatening and impactful forms of activism we saw during the civil rights movement require strong ties between people, and social media only promotes weak social ties
  • Hierarchy and structure are needed for social action, and social media promotes loose decentralized networks
  • We take the actions that we see online (fans, followers, etc) as social action, and we have forgotten what real activism is.

While his argument is not wrong, it is superficial and misleading. What Gladwell is commenting on is only what he sees, and what he sees is often just the surface of much larger movements and campaigns. Its like someone writing a story in the 1960s about how the civil rights movement cannot rely on the telephone alone, without talking about all about the actions that the telephone can help facilitate.

The telephone was probably used during the civil rights movement to reinforce relationships between people who already had strong ties (i.e. facebook) and connect people who may have common interests through random phone banking (i.e. twitter).

The core problem with Gladwell’s article is that he spends most of it discussing people who are chatting about activism and social justice on the phone (i.e. people in America tweeting about Iran and Moldova), rather than discussing people who are using the telephone to organize lunch counter sit-ins.

Next Generation Democracy
I recently read and am helping get the word out about Jared Duval’s new book: “Next Generation Democracy – What the Open Source Movement Means for Power Politics and Change.”

Jared’s book is all about how civic engagement and collaboration can help solve some of the world’s most wicked problems, and Jared also happens to be a former youth organizer and activist. I recently had a chance to talk to him about what Gladwell’s piece and how social media interplays with today’s activism.

Jared (and any good online or offline organizer) agrees that the main measure of social media’s impact is the action it promotes offline. Its fine to have 2000 facebook fans; the question is what their fanship means.

Jared is “sympathetic to Gladwell’s main point which is that the activism of generations past came from a depth of moral courage that people were really wiling to sacrifice their bodies and their lives for what they believe in. But today’s activism requires similar efforts. ”

Jared described stories of fasting for days at a time in his work on climate change, and has friends who have risked their lives as mountain top removal activists.

The problem, Jared asserts, is in the efficacy of those old school tactics. The media does not cover young activists risking their lives for causes they believe in.

This type of reporting is saved for documentaries that play well in niche circles, but not with traditional news outlets. If no one sees it, nothing changes. Millennials are willing to risk their lives and limbs, but only if it will work.

This makes sense given the ideological differences between Millennial and young activists in the 1960s. The Center for American Progress did a bit of polling which found that Millennial tend to be more progressive, but our ideological range is much more compressed. There are fewer on the extremes which may mean that there is less of an impulse for in your face activism and more of an impulse for things that are seen as pragmatic.

Jared’s book is all about how increased participation in governance can help solve some of the world’s most wicked public problems and this perspective goes a long way in describing Millennials preferred form of activism. If we don’t like something, we will probably first ask someone in power to change it. If they say no? We’ll start to create the change we want to see.

Next American City & SeeClickFix
I was just at the Next American Cities: Open Cities conference about the future of cities, and the participants exemplified this new form of change making. The room was not filled with people talking about how to get mayors to change our cities (although there was a bit of that). The conference was mostly filled with civic entrepreneurs who were creating social enterprises and companies that were the change they wanted to see.

While these companies and people do not solely rely on social media to promote the change they want to see, many of them rely on large-scale public participation, and use the web to create transparency around their movement and facilitate meaningful interactions, both online and off.

That’s just how we roll.

While at the conference I had a chance to catch up with Ben Berkowitz, founder of SeeClickFix – one of the most interesting companies currently shaping the online/offline world that was also profiled in Next Generation Democracy.

SeeClickFix is a civic company where anyone can report a nonemergency problem which then gets shared online for others to see and comment on. The social nature of SeeClickFix makes it more than just a complaint forum, but rather a place where people can spark actual change. Not only does it allow city officials to see what issues people care about and want solved, it allows people to connect with other that share similar concerns to advocate for greater change, and most interestingly, promotes people solving these problems themselves without relying on government to step in.

To date, there have been over 70,000 issues reported, 45% of which are marked as resolved.

I asked Ben what he thought about Malcom’s article, and what he thought of the power of social media and online media to facilitate meaningful change.

Ben – like all good social change makers – sees the power in the combination of the online tools and offline action.

He sees social media tools as a sort of onramp to more offline action. In the case of SeeClickFix, people start by reporting potholes or other non-emergency problems. But this often leads to a larger action.

Ben relayed a story about a group of runners who were in a park and found an abandoned boat and complained to the city about it. Then they realized it would be cheaper and easier to remove it themselves, and did just it. Their online activity lead to offline action. Ben has countless other stories about people banding together to make certain stretches of road safer to walk through, stories of previously unengaged residents becoming activated citizens, and stories of real change ushered through by everyday people.

To me, SeeClickFix is a great organization that really gets how online social tools can facilitate, spark, and enhance offline action, and exemplifies the power of online/offline integration.

To be fair, Gladwell did state in an authors chat a few days after the article that he believed online tools + offline grassroots organizing can be very powerful. However, I wanted to explore that intersection a bit more, and for that I called Evgeny Morozov, a brilliant theorist who is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford and was quoted in Gladwell’s original piece.

Evegeny’s main focus is on the international context, but his main question to me still applies:

In the case of limited resources, “how do you want to spend it to maximize social good? Do you want to blow it on save Darfur facebook groups, give money to groups that are effective offline and want to expand online, give it to people who do nothing on the internet.”

In the cases of serious social change and limited resources, it is important to think about how digital activism fits into the larger goals. Sometimes promoting the use of the tools distracts from the issues on the ground.

We need to make sure that we don’t focus on facebook and twitter and social media in ways that crowd out other types of activism and drain resources. There is a danger that many powerful tools will be disregarded because people have too much faith in the internet alone.

While Evegeny’s perspective is in the international context, I think the advice is important for us to think about. There are very real limitations to online organizing in the United States – we have a significant digital divide that prevents all people from participating equally, and on many issues this can be devastating. I completely agree that the first piece is to look at what you are trying to accomplish, and then work back from there. If online tools can help you enhance your strategy and better meet your goals, then by all means go for it. If you have limited resources, and are not able tp craft a campaign that adequately ties your online work to offline actions? You might want to focus your resources elsewhere.

The thing is, activism has changed since the 1960s. People are no longer engaging in direct actions in the same way that they used to. Today’s activism is no longer focused on the action, but its also not entirely focused on the tool, as Gladwell states in his piece. Rather, today’s “activism” is focused on change. We may not engage in direct action to the extent that past generations did, but we start companies, volunteer, take on government service, run for office, form community groups, write books, and otherwise create the change we want to see.

I think this new form of social change is really critical to think about. Gladwell is a much smarter theorist than I, and he missed a really important opportunity to explore how activism has shifted since the 1960s, and what role (if any) the internet has played in those major shifts.

Right now theorists like Malcom Gladwell see the internet, and they see the Saul Alinsky form of organizing, they don’t see the connection, and they think the system is broken.

The system is not broken, its just changed a bit.

What do you think? Have people traded the activism of the 60s and become more engaged in creating the change they want to see?

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Michele Costanza

@Yasmin: Glad to see you taking on Malcolm Gladwell. No offense to Gladwell, but I think his writing is often over-rated and simplistic. He has been criticized in the past for restating research that is not his own.

When you write, “There are fewer on the extremes which may mean that there is less of an impulse for in your face activism and more of an impulse for things that are seen as pragmatic,” the Millennial brand of activism as pragmatic often translates to dollars signs $$$$ for themselves. Millennials are sometimes perceived as being more concerned about padding their resumes than actual community service, to then go on to earn the prestigious graduate degrees, to then take on a leadership role, to make the big bucks, all under the age of 25! And while on this journey, Millennials are heard using phrases about their passion for a mission, about caring and wanting to help others, when it often is perceived that you’re mostly helping yourselves.

Yasmin Fodil

@Michele Thanks for your comment, and you make a fair point. I have to give more thought to the promise and peril of the Millennial Generation. I think its a fair assessment to say they (we) have an interest in doing well while doing good, but I haven’t really thought about the implications of that. If your self-interest is tied in with doing good stuff is that necessarily a bad thing? Hmmm…


A part that I see missing in the discussions is just how hard online organizing is. There is a sense in Gladwell’s article and others that you just pop up a FB page or Twitter profile and get tons of followers. Anyone in the space nows how difficult it is and I think when people realize that, they will show more value to it.

To me, it’s simple – there are levels of engagement. And you want to start small and get many people to engage at the lowest level and bring them up the commitment curve.

Finally, I think there’s a mythology about how successful offline organizing is. For every lunch day protest, there are hundreds of thousands of protests that failed to garner attention or gain traction.

Regardless of online and offline, it is hard to get a group of people committed to your cause and really hard to get an organization to change because of those committed folks beliefs

Yasmin Fodil

@govloop Thanks for your comments, all spot on. People do dismiss the difficultly of online organizing. I’ve done both and they are very similar both in terms of tactics and in terms of how time consuming it is – you start with small levels of engagement and continue to engage people more and more, until they become leaders/content creators, etc themselves. Offline you are literally knocking on people’s doors, making individual phone calls, and walking the streets. Online you are knocking on “digital doors.” Its all about how you get people to take an action, wherever it is. Its a combination of having a compelling reason for people to become involved + giving them opportunities to lead, whether you are online or off. Finally, I agree re: the myth of offline organizing, which is partly why I think the new breed of “do it yourself” activism is really compelling.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I agree with Berkowitz here – it’s not enough to do only social media to the exclusion of more traditional approaches to communications. We’ve whipped ourselves into a frenzy over the last few years (myself included!) about the power of social media to change things…and it is!

But there’s something to be said for sit-ins and meet-ups and unconferences and just plain having a coffee with a fellow innovator or a drink late at night in a dorm room or a bar. There’s no substitute for people gathering in person to brainstorm and embolden each other to put themselves physically on the line for something important or otherwise, to just stand together and be counted. Plus, those in-person connections ratchet up the velocity of what happens virtually…and social media sustains the energy in ways impossible before.

Strongest argument to counter Gladwell: TV helped the civil rights movement immensely. What if all of that sacrifice remained unseen by the world? Or what if it was only still photos? Now imagine if those students in Greensboro could have texted each other or taken self-shot video or photos of what they were experiencing and sent it to the TV or news outlets. How many MORE students would have showed up on day 2 or how much faster would the wildfire have spread across North Carolina and the South? Would the world have paid attention even sooner if the revolutionary images were shared in near real-time in places like FB, Twitter and YouTube? Would the ludicrous civil rights abuses and the establishments that perpetuated them have toppled with greater speed if the masses were moved by more personal accounts of the chaos?

I have to believe so…

Adriel Hampton

Great thoughts, Yasmin. I have refrained from reading the Gladwell article – I don’t waste mental energy on pop theorists’ critiques of pop activism.

Martha Garvey

@Andrew Yes, and yes, and yes.

Oh, gosh, as a person crazy for social media tools–and the daughter of a woman who made civil rights her passion in the 1960s and 1970–I have a lot to say about this.

Here’s what I want to caution everyone about: it helps nobody to make this binary. In any way.

As far as I’m concerned, both Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky (author of Hear Comes Everybody, which Gladwell takes to task in his article) reduce complicated events to digestible stories to prove their points.

Let’s all agree that when information about injustice gets exposed to the light of day, there is a greater chance of something changing. If there is a system in place, informal or formal, improvised or longstanding, to fix it.

Greensboro was also the home, sadly, of a protest march against the Klan in the late 1970s where several of the protestors were gunned down, and some murdered, by the American Nazi Party and the Klan. It is a complex story–one of the protestors also had a gun–but know this: nobody ever was convicted in the deaths of the protestors. (Full disclosure, I helped one of the survivors with a book proposal.)

More information is here.


All of us probably know less about it than we should for a couple of reasons:

1. It happened a long time ago.
2. It takes more than a sound bite to describe.

3. Most importantly: This story got close to no coverage because it happened the same week the Iran hostage crisis happened, and that swamped anything else. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_hostage_crisis)

If such a thing happened now? I have no doubt that we would have seen some live time footage, somewhere, from a camera phone, a cry for help on Twitter, a Facebook protest.

Would that have led to convictions for the people who shot the protestors? What do you think?