Malcolm Gladwell’s recently published essay on social media and activism has been gaining a lot of attention from the tech world and social innovation crowd. For good reason too. He has managed to articulately skewer the idea that online social activism and the tools that advance it are any better or even as good as previous forms of activism such as the type witnessed during the civil rights movement.
Gladwell also takes aim at innovators.
Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.
Gladwell points to a new book, “The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change,” by business consultant Andy Smith and Stanford Business School professor Jennifer Aaker, and how they use illustrations of how small acts such as forwarding an email request to search out bone marrow donors as examples of activism. His comparison is with the acts perpetuated in the 1950’s and 60’s in the United States south as part of the Civil Rights Movement where people physically put themselves in harms way and literally took action.
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.
This is an important distinction between participation and activism. But I argue that this paints things in too much of a black and white way of viewing the issue. What does activism mean? Gladwell doesn’t really say, pointing to examples like the protest at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and how it grew through people literally standing up and sitting down for their rights, as activism. Using Gladwell’s example, one might not distinguish between those sitting at the lunch counter from those outside. But is there a difference? Does it matter if you are at the front or the back of the line, after all, it still is a line isn’t it?
I think that really depends on what the line means in terms of its goals and actions. Participation is the same way. Does it matter if you watch a football game at home compared to watching it in a stadium, live, with 40000 other people? What about if you are watching it from the sidelines, on the bench, or whether you’re in the game handing the ball? When does it cease to be participation and when does it begin?
Social media is like that. There are those with dozens, hundreds even hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. Some people I know have more than 800 Facebook friends, even if Dunbar’s number suggests that we really can only have close to 150 substantive relationships in our lives. So what does that mean?
The problem I have with Gladwell’s analysis is that it slips too far towards either/or thinking about social media without considering the nuance withing a social network. Indeed, there are many who will sign a petition, forward on an email, and join a Facebook group denouncing something, supporting something else, and advocating another thing with little real attention paid to the topic or outcome. But the same is true of anything social. Most human beings like to be where others are.
Thousands join protests, yet only a few commit to the issue enough to go beyond the protest to write letters, put up posters, vocalize, and study the problem. The same is true of social networks. The difference is that social networks enable passive engagement easier than through other means. So it makes sense that the gap between those who do little and those who do a lot is large, but in the end, are there more people active? The stats are hard to confirm, because activism is so much different now.
Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a protest and a sit-in was novel, thus it attracted a lot of attention. Today, we have protest staging areas at events like the G20 because they are expected and almost predictable. Thus, they’ve lost their ability to hold the same level of attention as they once did. Same with the petition.
We’ve hit marks with Facebook groups pretty quickly illustrating how quick things go from novel to trite. The lesson isn’t that social media doesn’t work, rather it is that the speed to which we adapt is increasing. Innovations are coming far faster. Twitter is now the rage, but soon it might be something else, maybe something with video. But they all will have some staying power, the issue is that we just don’t know what that will be.
But if we continue to view things as working/not working, good/bad, real/fake we start to miss the point that these tools and technologies are doing something and are supporting real people, some of whom are doing a lot; to dismiss that is to risk squashing the spirit and potential that we all have to advocate and participate in change.