“[Social media] makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”
This provocative assertion was made by Malcolm Gladwell in his New Yorker piece, “Small Change,” published earlier this month.
To sum it up quickly, Gladwell’s article is centered around what kind of activism social-media outlets are really motivating. Specifically, he talks about Twitter and Facebook, and omits -though it is public knowledge- that he doesn’t use and doesn’t like Twitter. But we’ll let that slide. The article first relates the story of four African-Americans who, in 1960, were refused service at a restaurant in Greensboro, NC, for having sat down on seats that were reserved for “white people.” The episode sparked a massive and violent student protest which “became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade – and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.”
By the end of the article you’ll see that he clearly thinks that Internet-based social activism is effective only when it requires 1) less effort, 2) less personal involvement, and 3) less hierarchical organization than when it does not. Following this logic, we could say that it’s easy to retweet someone else’s message about a rally happening somewhere, and it’s easy to like it on Facebook and say you will be attending the event, but when it comes to actually making phone calls, and printing out flyers, and organizing meetings, or putting our personal freedom at risk, our motivation to participate quickly fades. Problem is, Gladwell explains, that real, radical social movements have always required high-risk actions and close ties among their members, not to mention a strong organizational component. Gladwell concludes that social media today is useful only for small-scale, low-involvement social participation.
Several social-media critics have responded toGladwell’s claims, includingTwitter co-founder Biz Stone himself. Most of them disagree with Gladwell’s assessment. Some smart readers do too.They criticize Gladwell for making an unfair comparison between “Twitter activism” and the Civil Rights Movement, and they say that Gladwell is making a big mistake by dismissing the entire spectre of possibilities of social networking. His view, they say, is anachronistic and unrealistic. The world doesn’t function and doesn’t organize itself the same way it did in the 60s. The enemies are different. So are the players.