5 Flaws with Malcolm Gladwell’s Stance on Social Media Activism


via: http://www.toddlockwood.com/

Three years ago Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker piece titled Twitter, Facebook, and social activism.

He observed and compared the value of social media activism with the history of significant offline activism, such as the Greensboro protest.

My final thoughts after reading were murky and I wasn’t sure why.

Gladwell made some great points and highlighted key historical players and insightful comments from critics and thought leaders.

However, the basis of this piece is grounded on a weak comparison and a misguided view of digital nature.

For starters, Gladwell builds comparisons based on offline and online utilities; basically, he dramatizes the comparison, as if both platforms are equal in nature.

The overlying theme is that offline activism is much more capable, meaningful, and scale-able, while social media activism is good for low-risk/commitment activism and rapidly fueling exposure with a simple sentiment.

I agree, as most would, with Gladwell’s view of the utility for offline and online activism.

I disagree with how the piece is forged as if social media activism must live up to the standards of offline activism.

For the past decade the majority of social media users have been using social media for the most basic of interactions; sharing jokes, pictures/videos, gossip, news, and having conversations. The nature of social media is to get people typing, sharing, and talking – not getting out of their seats and picking up a protest sign. If we’re being practical about this, just consider why Facebook was really created…

At any rate, here are 5 statements I personally believe are true about the nature of social media, accompanied by a quote from Gladwell’s piece showing the other side. The material for my disposition comes from a form of social media activism that started the same month Gladwell’s article was published.

#1.  Social media has leaders 

Malcolm Gladwell:

Social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.

#2. Social media fuels strategy and tactics

Malcolm Gladwell:

Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

#3. Social media allows for high-risk activism

Malcolm Gladwell:

Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

#4. Social media is flexible

Malcolm Gladwell:
The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.

#5. Social media activism helps more than petty theft

Malcolm Gladwell:

A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.

My counter example

Quora and LinkedIn, for example, have hierarchies based on titles and reputation. Discussions are catalyzed when high-profiles offer their thoughts, essentially legitimizing the discussion as more valuable.

So anonymity, you may think, would have the opposite effect. However, Reddit users regularly ban together and follow suite of ‘leaders’ they deem as such.

Consider this example: Colbert Nation Raises +194K for “Truthiness” Rally – this gives a concise overview of what went down, but to really get a good idea you’ll need to check out the official Reddit post.

The Basics:

  • The leaders: Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Reddit
  • The causes: Rally to Restore Sanity & the non-profit, Donors Choose
  • Decisions were made collectively and independently
  • Social media activism enabled rapid donations and growth

The Play by Play:

  • A Reddit user proposes an idea
  • The community ignites it
  • The major players strategize
  • The power of social media activism was multi-beneficial:
    • Reddit donates over $500,000 to Donors Choose
    • Thus, propelling the reality of Rally to Restore Sanity
    • Exemplifying the nature of social media activism and its flexibility

From an innocent suggestion to a rally with over 200,000 activists and half a million dollars donated to helping our education system, this is social media activism at its finest.

This example demonstrates how social media activism can be flexible and strong-tied, which offers counter-insight to Gladwell’s notions.

It’s literally showing how ideas can be conceived in a tiny corner of the internet and transform into a real-world demonstration; all organized in a manner that many would argue is more well-put than that of many offline activist organizations.

We cannot compare the Rally to Restore Sanity to something like Greensboro because every bit of context is different. Sure, they’re both categorized as activism, but they operate on completely different platforms and derive from completely different causes. This should give us different expectations.

And here are some additional questions that were bouncing around my head after reading Gladwell’s piece:

  • Is it better if social media users are not spending their time involved in online activism? Isn’t it better if we’re participating and contributing to a movement than changing a filter on Instagram or playing a mindless Facebook game?
  • Isn’t the nature of social media seeded in entertainment? Shouldn’t it be more impressive than looked down upon when social media activism occurs?

What are your thoughts on the nature of social media activism? 

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Jesse Aaron

I'm a blogger, homebrewer, and community manager. Aside from writing, I have a passion for music and design.

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