Maria Popova | Essays

Malcolm Gladwell Is #Wrong

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

Posted in: Media

Comments [44]

More damning evidence that Malcolm has missed the mark on this one. Your point on his weird separation between online and offline (perhaps a mark of somebody who doesn't use these platforms) is really the crucial point here. It's nice to see some more real world examples of activism sparked by social activity online.

All of the above tallies with my arguments against his current position: http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/6678-the-revolution-will-not-be-socialised-says-malcolm-gladwell-hes-wrong

Gladwell was *mostly* right...but you make valid points too.

The simple (sad?) reality right now is that all this connectivity and access has resulted in exponentially more mundane conversation about the minutia of our lives and a fractional shift in social activism or discussion of anything bigger than ourselves. The signal to noise ratio is ridiculously high in social media right now and I don't see that trend changing. Maybe it will when we all get used to playing in these new media.

Gladwell could've saved himself some grief - and you a lot of time crafting this eloquent response - if he'd just subtitled his original article:
"Why the revolution will *almost certainly* not be tweeted"
"If the revolution is tweeted it'll probably get lost in a sea of tweets about Justin Beiber".

But, he doesn't get paid to take weak stands.

Amazing and nuanced analysis, Maria.

Gladwell seems to miss his own point about television's role in the Civil Rights movement, and its role in pressuring politicians. This critical mass of awareness, as you put it, is one half of all activism, and of course that's what Social Media can do so well.

Also the crowd-sourcing examples, which don't involve strong or weak ties at all, are a completely new opportunity for activism that Gladwell completely ignores.

Great work!
jake Barton

I agree with Malcom. I think you all drank the Social Media Kool Aid a bit too much. Sending money is not activism. Getting out of your house and doing something is activism. Social Media can bring awareness. But to date has not impacted awareness to the level big news sources have. He is 100% correct when it comes to 'weak ties'. That is fact not fiction.

But I will also state that Social Media has helped with disinformation and twisting of reality. Follow hashtag #tcot on Twitter or #sgp and see the vile lies and hate people on the right spout. In fact I actually think Social Media has helped activism more for negative causes than positive causes.

While I agree with your examples regarding some protests having been helped by Facebook, in countries with low internet access levels I can not believe they had the impact you think they did. I think pure word of mouth in real life were the kicker. Seriously how many FB users are there in Bulgaria and Columbia who log in each day? I bet less than 1 million total combined.

You forget 95% of live feed updates on Facebook are never seen. Activity rates are so low on that site that they scrubbed the damning numbers after I outed them this year (not saying it was because of me). With only 30-40mil active users on Facebook and 8-18mil active on Twitter world wide each day it's a nice group but not sure its as earth moving as you think. I still think boots on the ground word of mouth is 100% head and tales above everything for these actions.

Howie at Sky Pulse Media

I like Jeff's comment. And I celebrate what he calls "fractional gains" in activism because of new tools. My life is a gold mine of anecdotal evidence on social media's influence on activism and how it's funded. I know that life is different, fundamentally different, because of social media tools.
The nonprofit world is shifting in countless ways because of social media. The day is coming when a single click will mobilize whatever resources are necessary to solve every problem everywhere.
It may take longer than some of us would like, and others among us may not be able to imagine it, but the "replacement people" coming after my generation, and Gladwell's, will know nothing other than a connected world that uses social media tools (whatever they are at the time) to accomplish their goals. This is not only the future of activism, it's the future, period.
Ruth Ann Harnisch

Simply put, Gladwell writes for the masses with things so obvious that even a moron can understand. Thus, his incredible popularity. A similar thing may be said on a lesser level for the writing of Alain de Boton.

That said, this does not excuse the intense navel gazing of much of what passes for design writing and/or criticism.

Well said, Ruth Ann. Gains are to be celebrated. Here's to the future that you envision; I hope it arrives early.


Not only is the argument compelling, but the article is much more fun to read than Gladwell's draggy tome.

In addition to all of the above, Twitter is also a superb research tool. If you want to explore all angles of an issue and find out who's who, a relatively quick surf of hashtag posts will yield a ton of good leads. Yes, you have to go beyond twitter, but the good news is it is not an either/or deal.

As for traditional media being a more powerful galvanizing force, again, not an either/or. Indeed, guess where savvier reporters now routinely research leads? And guess how many of their readers are finding - and sharing - the articles that result?

Tech doesn't make us smarter or better. It never has. But it can make things easier, sometimes even making the impossible possible. It can - and usually does - cut both ways. Social networking has enormous power - it is a stunning tool. To dismiss it so summarily is just plain silly.

H'mmm, I wonder if they'd had Twitter in Greensboro 40 years ago...would a sit-in have been necessary?

J.A. Ginsburg

I don't think it's really 100 percent on either side. A lot of the examples for successful social media activism are in other countries where such technology is still a revolutionary tool, and there are revolutions people are still motivated to fight.

I took Gladwell's piece to be more of a commentary on countries like a America, where social media has (in a lot of senses) become as much of a lapel pin as it has become a tool for real change. The question of, not just raising awareness, but raising awareness and inciting action is a tricky one, too.

10,000 retweets of processed chicken isn't really worth anything unless those 10,000 people actually stop supporting the companies that use said product. And maybe they will, t'would be wonderful, but I'm guessing that many won't.

Social media has potential, and that potential has been realized in certain situations. However, I do agree that many times it lends to a high degree of casual involvement and passive engagement. In the end, I think that it's the job of "tech leaders" - the people speaking at conferences and leading agencies - to prove that they can inspire actual change with these tools, not just talk about their potential.

Again, some have done this, but many many are content to simply talk potential instead of proving it.

That Gladwell's abstinence from social media renders his critique moot is a false premise. You don't have to drink Kool-Aid to decry the evils of too much sugar. But if you'll only accept the words of a social media insider, here are a smoldering few from Clay Johnson about online petitions, very applicable to activists' overall use and treatment of the social web: http://infovegan.com/2010/08/11/how-we-do-it-in-washington-dc

All Gladwell's done is challenged our assumptions about what "on-line activism" can or cannot do.

You both introduce some interesting points but should consider that the category of Social Media may be too generic to give weight to each of your arguments.

Obama's on-line campaign was successful because his organization created a great website. I doubt Obama's Facebook page alone would have generated the same level of financial and voter support. Likewise, while Twitter may have focused our attention on the Iranian election it was because the "old school" media jumped on the Twitter bandwagon that most Americans learned about the atrocities happening in Tehran.

To be effective, whether as a political activist or a commercial enterprise, we need to fully understand the tools we're using and apply them strategically.
Andy Jacobson

I remain unconvinced by both sides this argument. On the one hand, social media is a powerful, effective and ubiquitous organisational tool. Yet it also lends itself to congrogations of like minded individuals so I would challenge your point about emphathy.

And lets face facts, the creators in social media are more likely to be white middle class college educated at least for the time being. Not to say that this group doesn't contain activitists...

The recent marches in Europe are a good example of the physical energy that is required to get noticed. Social media is a passive form of interaction, which sits snuggly alongside forms of infotainment, we can 'like' things but we can't 'vehemently object' but then we can question, mobilise and cajole as media and content creators in our own right.

It has also led to the emergence of more partisan media e.g. Fox News, which seeks to reinforce a political ethos and establishment. I guess these guys are activists for some.

Ultimately, social media isn't the barrier to societal change but the established power elites are. I think it will take someone, a true leader, to initiate that change (and I am not talking about God). There's no doubt that social media will play a role in any movement for change in the future but as a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Daniel Young

As I put in my own response:

I don’t think that me clicking a petition online is the same as marching in the streets for a cause, but I do consider both of them to be forms of activism. I do consider my Facebook friends to be real friends, because I have met them in real life and continue dialoguing with them across platforms, whether it be text, email, voice, skype, Twitter, Facebook or most often, a combination of them. But I find it problematic how Gladwell seeks to draw these lines between such activities and networks. As Kevin Driscoll, a student of Henry Jenkins, puts it: Creating a hard distinction between “traditional” activism and “social media” activism is a dead end.

You can see the full blog post here: http://behzodsirjani.com/blog/2010/strong-weak-or-necessary/

There are blind followers and real heroes both on- and off-line. But I have to ask: how many of you are browsing Facebook and Twitter while sitting on the toilet? And can you really save the world from there?

Wow...Howie didn't actually read this post, did he. Neither did Marie.

To summarize, then: The acknowledgement that MOST of the social connection online is weak is in both Gladwell's and Maria's work in response. The difference is that Gladwell concludes that therefore, no action comes OF that - or it is does, it is exceptional. Maria, on the other hand, seems to be noting that the sheer global effect OF global change itself proves that this is significant - in that it is major, earthshaking, and frequent.

To reconcile that second viewpoint requires only one changed assumption, Howie and Marie: sure, much of what I do online is trivial, too. But then, most of what the folks who sat at those lunchcounters did in their lives was surely just as trivial - getting up, brushing teeth. When we celebrate them, no one notes the mundane aspects of the rest of THEIR lives - it's NOT evidence that "real life" is weak, in terms of changemaking. To levy the same charge against the online world because of mass volume of triviality is to approach the online world with a complete misunderstanding of it - especially of how much of it is EVERYTHING we do, not just the activist part.

Whilst I have a lot of time for Gladwell, i think he is wrong here. First, and most importantly, if he is not active in social media, he simply is not informed enough to make a valid observation or prediction. The same goes for anyone in this comment stream who supports him. social media isn't a white paper - you cant digest its impact or understand its potential unless you are 'involved'. That's why its different to any change in connection and communication between human beings that has gone before. So, if you are not active in social media, please save us all from your ill informed opinion.

Second, the fact that Gladwell sees the connections as 'weak ties' shows his ignorance. they may appear tenuous but they are the beginnings of something much stronger, much more powerful. Social media is enabling ties between people who have never been able to connect before. And in some cases, those connections will be life changing.

Also, as someone immersed in social media (and getting more from it than learning what Justin Bieber had for lunch!) I can confirm that the ties i have made are far from weak. In fact, i have met more people and made stronger face to face connections since being active on social media than at any time previously. Its an enabler.

And just to pick up on something Howie from Sky Pulse Media says in that social media has "not impacted on awareness as much as big news sources has". Social media is rapidly becoming the main informer stream of the big news sources! Breaking news travels a lot faster via SM than via any other medium and its making these 'big news sources' stand up and take notice. Its also the first medium ever that cannot be controlled or manipulated by bent politicians or corporate big shots like "big news sources" can.

Like Ruth says, its future. Wakey wakey Malcolm!

Gareth Jones

This Gladwell conversation has been the theme this week! Glad it's bringing out a good debate. And since I can't stay away..

Boyhowdy: Of course the people at those lunch-counters had trivial thoughts going on, the difference is that terms of activism, they didn't 'Like' something on Facebook and call it a day. There's a lot of people very concerned that social activism is breeding a more aware yet inactive involvement, and that people really are prioritizing their trivialities. So much so a lot of, say, 20somethings, can't seem to even tell the difference between real engagement in an issue and clicking a button. Unlike the lunch-counter protesters who might have been thinking hairstyles, but were doing something else with their time and their physical selves. Consciously. Sorry to break it down like that, but yeah.

So we have this amazing new world where everything's easier and safer and you can do it all in your bathrobe. I'm still wondering about how and where this is changing how we think about participation. That said, I'm totally optimistic about the online world as a set of tools.. a platform to supplement, aid or actually better the work towards social good. I think there's exciting (yet to come) opportunities in Twitter, et al for political change. Nervous about people who talk about online and real life as equals (!) and/or diametrically opposing things.

Was interested in Maria's discussion about meeting online friends. I hope to do more of that.. sometimes interacting with people online really can feel a bit ephemeral or abstract. A lot of people I care about are on Facebook. I have a few good friends who won't do it 'cause they're just not interested or have said that they prefer thinking about friendship face-to-face. If you're like me, I have tons of people I care about on that thing and also some people I've met exactly once.. yep, weak ties that one wouldn't necessarily keep pre-internet. I see stronger ties in a dinner party or attending a conference or a class. I spend my share of time alone, so some of this stuff really underscores the importance of real human real-time connection and interaction for me. Currently, I should take myself Off a social network or two that seem to think it'd be fun for me to have online "friendships" completely mediated by a bunch of stupid game mechanics ...and call a "real" friend instead.

Peter A Jacobson

This a really great post. I would love to see you debate Gladwell one on one. Any way that can be set up?
Chris Dorr

There is a huge difference between awareness and activism. I will agree with you that social media is incredible for creating awareness. However I tend to lean more with Gladwell when it comes to whether or not it creates real activism. In the majority of situations weak ties do not build strong results.

Also the people saying that Gladwell doesn't have a leg to stand on simply because he does not participate in social media...come on. Do you really think that matters? The guy is going to mine every bit of data he can get his hands on regarding social media. Data is where you'll see the real information and trends, not from partaking.

Question for @Brandon: can there be activism w/out awareness? Social media makes the awareness reach broader audience and thus I would argue it causes more people to get active ... activism doesn't have to happen on Twitter but can start there

4 months ago I would totally be on Gladwell's side ... whom I still deeply respect! ... but then I started using Twitter myself and took a greater interest in YouTube, Facebook, etc. I came to believe they offer something over some of the previous services that preceded them ... an essence I call "platformness" http://mybin.wordpress.com/2010/09/05/platformness-discovering-a-new-quality-in-things/

It is a quality that can be described with words like uber-openness, uber-usefulness, uber-something-that-encourages-novel-uses,…

Services with this quality can be used in unimaginable ways ... even to drive social changes and get more people active ... it's the users who find those novel uses, though ... there is nothing in the design spec of those platforms listing social activism as a supported feature! ;-)

I believe Twitter and YouTube have this quality ... not sure about Facebook yet but I'm open to a surprise ;-)

I also believe cupcakes possess the essence, but that's another story ;-)

Keep up the great work Maria!!


Goran Kimovski

As it turns out everyone's right and wrong! Gladwell's main point is that the thing that sparks more "radical" action is the strength of the relationship they have to others doing the action. This doesn't seem terribly controversial. The idea that friend number 500 on your facebook page can't spark you to radical action doesn't seem horribly controversial either.

Maria's point that awareness is a significant factor promoting activism is equally uncontroversial. In America this results in people giving too little or too much credence to the power of social media. A good deal of civil rights may be "settled" in the U.S., but some are far from it (gay rights in particular). How has social media helped them, if at all? Awareness isn't the problem, action is.

However, in less organized countries where there isn't such established democracy or authoritarianism, social media is an important tool. It can help elections not get stolen or provide a way for opposition views to be voiced. All of this is to make for a freer more informed and, I would argue, better world.
Jason Laughlin

Jason Laughlin (above) mentioned that in come countries where there isn't established democracy...social media is an important tool in elections.

I think Twitter was a key component in our own U.S. election of Obama. He was the young "with it" candidate, on Twitter.

I think that elections are often won or lost based on advertising. On social media, our bonds are much closer to each other than they are to a magazine or a television commercial.

Social media is about relationship building over time. It will probably evolve into a much more component in networking than advertising or marketing ever was. Just my opinion.
Lois Geller

Facebook, Twitter et al are communications tools in the same vein as the radio, the telephone, television and even the newspaper in their heyday. While physical presence seems to be important to Gladwell's definition of activism, the social media are now used to plan and coordinate those physical efforts. One has only to look at the pro-democracy protests in Iran to understand the importance of these new forms of communication. In that case the revolution—albeit an aborted one—was "tweeted", as this was one of the few communications tools the Iranian government could not completely control. Social media by itself may not provide the activism needed to take down a corrupt regime, fight for political and civil rights, or correct an injustice, but it is playing an increasingly important role in steering that activism in the right direction. The revolution might not be tweeted, but the instructions for it will be.
Kevin Boynton

How can I thank you? Can I buy you lunch? Seriously, I was profoundly disturbed after reading Gladwell, especially the Q&A. Both sad because of its content and disappointed since I'm a huge fan. I can sleep at night now that a light has appeared in the darkness.
Kianga Ellis

My belly button just gave me a dirty look… not cool.
Joe Moran

I think Gladwell's ridicule of the State Department's request to make sure Twitter remained up in a country of such low internet usage was spot on. Its easy to be delusional about the powers of the social network when you're fishing for straws
..."the Yemeni activist group Sisters Arabic Forum for Human Rights put up a YouTube video", Maria Popova, which came first the chicken or the egg? Don't forget the young men at the lunch counter were steeped in a culture of resistance (to a real, present injustice for themselves) prior to them even becoming college mates.
Also, an offline eminence pulling the strings in social justice causes? Come on.
Gareth: sorry but there are plenty of philosophical counters to your argument, "if you're not involved" [in social media] you cant know.
Looking forward to reading your links, Goran and Behzod
David A

Iran is a great example of where social media awareness led to true activism. Too bad it failed. The people in Iran are passionate, actually all around the world for the most part people are passionate. Here in America social media will never lead to real activism, people are just too f**king lazy and don't care. If something isn't directly affecting someone here, or perceived as directly affecting them...then they seemingly don't care at all. The majority of us can't even disrupt our lives for 10 mins 1 day every 2 years to vote. Pathetic doesn't even do that justice! You want to pretend that social media awareness leads to activism? I totally agree that social media increases awareness, I just don't think it actually motivates many people, who weren't already motivated, to do anything. Also, filling out some BS online petition...does not count.

I'll be impressed if half of you even make it to the end of this comment.

@TheUglyAmerican: I read your comment to the very end (!) and I can attest for myself that it was blogging and social media that motivated me to start participating -- I learned I thrive when engaging with people, whether they share my views or not as that is a way for me to learn http://mybin.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/i-help-others-engage-therefore-i-learn/ Before, I stayed comfortably in my own cocoon and observed from the sidelines. Now I am trying to follow my passion (kids and their future) and started World4Children.org as a way to connect to inspiring kids and help them engage with adults in discussing and acting on some of the most important topics for their future, be that global or local http://mybin.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/call-for-support-kids-as-partners-in-the-future/

@David A: I am looking forward to your feedback!

Goran Kimovski

I think some subtleties of Gladwell's argument have been lost in the hasty defense of social networks. There is a difference between using social networks as a tool for organizing motivated people (as Obama has) and relying on social networks in and of themselves (to get a sidekick back not change society). I also think Gladwell is talking about causality... the revolution may be tweeted *about* as did newpapers But will the revolution be created through tweets and facebook? I don't think so.

I'd define activism as working towards social change... and tweeting and facebook reinforce the status quo as they are most accessible to those with power and privilege.
Megan Gilster

"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."

You sure about that? We are, remember, the same culture that has collectively decided to "look forward" and condone torture and indefinite detention of "suspected terrorists." Look no further than the recent so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" and "Kenyan Anticolonial Father" episodes in our national debate to explain how bigotry is not only condoned by enthusiastically embraced by American culture. One might also consider the rate of incarceration and government surveillance of minorities, as well.

I understand your larger argument lays elsewhere, but that paragraph struck me as irresponsible at best.

I've been struck by how defensively so many social media enthusiasts (and I count myself among those, btw) have reacted to Gladwell's piece. I don't think its outrageous to say that established systems of domination will necessitate organizations that are (as of yet) not best facilitated through Twitter. Arguing that something has limits is not the same as arguing that it is worthless. And I think social media enthusiasts would be better served not co-opting the term "revolution" when what they actually mean is "evolution."

I'd define activism as working towards social change... and tweeting and facebook reinforce the status quo as they are most accessible to those with power and privilege


I'm going to have to disagree with you there: sending money can actually be a tremendous form of activism. All too many times there are so many willing volunteers ready to take a stand, but not enough funds available to provide necessary resources. I'm thinking specifically of things like medicinal work, where doctors are working around the clock in destitute areas with meager supplies. The heart is there, the people are there, but they cannot properly dress a wound or complete a surgery without the necessary supplies. The same goes for causes all across the board: human rights, environmental issues, etc; they need funding for tools to put in the hands of capable and passionate people.

People should donate all that they have to the cause they care about. If it's hard labor, it's hard labor. But it could also be time, money, influence, the power of persuasion. Who are you to dismiss donation as a worthy form of activism, possibly discouraging your peers from whatever level of activism they still have? Shame on you.

Everyone has a different experience in 'social networking'. Aside from automated social interactions, mutual congratulations on inert actions fuel social networking. Many are concerned with online bullying; but on the other end of the spectrum, you have people gathering to give each other constant, indiscriminate positive reinforcement; the technical term, I believe, is 'circle jerk'.
The above is all contestable, because everyone has a different experience in 'social networking', as they do in life. So why is everyone an expert on everyone else's experience all of a sudden? Because it's the internet, and chances are you never have to face the people whom you presume to speak for/ represent.

Megan Gilster makes a good point in pointing out that the use of the internet only mobilized those who were already eager to act.

Why would an observation by someone who does not participate in 'social networking' be any less valid than those who are immersed in it? Are bird watchers less authoritative to speak about birds than birds themselves?

And how does anyone know that Malcolm Gladwell has never participated in social networking? I personally think it's highly unlikely that Malcolm Gladwell has never participated in any form of 'social networking'. I first encountered Malcolm Gladwell on the internet, not in print. I participated in internet-based forums made by designers in the late 90s: precursors to what people consider social networking, through which I encountered his work. Can newsgroups be considered social networks?

This article frames a picture that appeals to readers with memory about this form of communication of less than 5 years, which is the predominant perspective of much of the talkers out here because these users are easiest to convert into followers.

The intent of this article is to pick a fight with a famous person, creating an image that the author is on par with Gladwell. When in fact, the article and its comments are closer to being on the same level than the former; at least the latter is on the same page.
elle ko

Thank you all for the thoughtful comments. (Especially to those who actually took the time to read the full piece before responding.) I'll try to address a few of those and I hope the important dialogue here will continue.

@Jeff - You're absolutely right about the signal-to-noise ratio, but I think this gives "information activists" all the more urgency to step up as curators and filters of information, directing the world's attention to the issues that do matter. This has always been the role of journalism, the media have always framed the world for the audience, helping people make sense of information in a context and framework that makes priorities clear. Now we just need to learn to do this on a new platform. Retrace the history of journalism all the way back to town criers and you'll see that they didn't refuse to do what they did just because their voices could've gotten lost amidst the noise of the city and the shouts of the madmen roaming the streets. If they had, we wouldn't have a media industry.

@Howie – I won't even go into your point about giving money because I make my stance on it clear in the discussion of "slacktivism." But I'd like to do a quick fact-check here: Bulgaria (which happens to be my home country) has incredibly high Facebook penetration, especially in the capital where the political institutions reside. In a city with a population of 1.4 million (and a country with around 8 million), these protests, which were organized pretty much entirely on Facebook, drew thousands of people to the point where traffic had to be redirected from large portions of the downtown area. Most importantly, however, this is entirely besides the point because activism is about what gets accomplished, so whether the protests drew fifteen people or fifteen thousand is of no consequence if they accomplished what they set out to accomplish – which they did.

@Mika – Ouch.

@J.A. – excellent point about Twitter as a research tool. I got so boggled down in addressing Gladwell's points that I glided right past ones that fell outside his scope of vision, even though they're the very currency of my own day-to-day work. The social web, Twitter in particular, can be such a powerful pattern-recognition tool and it's often by recognizing cultural patterns that we can begin to address cultural problems.

@Forest – glad you caught that processed chicken tweet :) (And isn't "processed chicken" such an apt metaphor about what we're doing here so mercilessly dissecting Twitter?) I think with every problem, every grand challenge, there will be a portion of people that are be aware of it and unwilling to act, either for lack of empathy or for lack of desire to inconvenience themselves, a portion who are unable to act because they don't know how to, and a (smaller) portion who are unable to act simply because they aren't aware of the problem in the first place. A single tweet won't make people more willing, but it will make people aware, so we eliminate that last group. Now, everyone is unwilling. The next step is to convey messages that A) direct people to resources for specific steps they could take and B) broaden their scope of empathy. The latter is obviously a complex and multi-layered task that a single tweet likely can't accomplish, but I believe today's best content creators are able to elicit that emotional response to causes, and the best content curators are able to find those content creators and disseminate their content to the audience it is meant to impact. The power of the social web in the latter shouldn't be underestimated.

@themusci "You don't have to drink Kool-Aid to decry the evils of too much sugar." – Well, the research on sugar is pretty cut-and-dry – and that's because decades ago, the leading researchers at the time started pulling it into their labs and anthropologically observing the effects it had on people until they gradually reached the conclusion that it was bad. The research on social media is lacking at best and it is the JOB of the leading researchers of today, thought leaders and digital anthropologists alike, among whom Gladwell no doubt counts himself, to pull it into their labs and engage with it until they have a cut-and-dry verdict. What Gladwell is doing here is the equivalent of decrying the evils of Kool-Aid for society because he personally doesn't like what it tastes like.

@Andy – I intentionally left the Iran case study out of this argument because it's incredibly multifaceted and entails much more than social media to evaluate correctly. There are people far smarter than I am who have shared some fascinating thinking and research on it – I recommend reading some of Evgeny Morozov's work. It should be noted, however, that many of the criticisms directed at Twitter regarding Iran are actually looking at failures of strategy, not failures of medium. Strategic errors will sabotage a movement whatever stage or platform it takes place on and it's not the platform's fault when that happens but the planners'.

@Daniel – I agree that physical presence can be incredibly powerful, but it should also be noted that there's a difference between getting noticed and effecting change. A crowd in a plaza can certainly command attention, but they can't harness that attention towards action beyond the initial stuntsmanship of the protest itself the way that a well-orchestrated social media campaign can disseminate information, provide step-by-step directions, share resources and otherwise empower those who are now paying attention to then take action. As for power elites, don't you think that the more voices are present at a negotiating table, the more difficult it becomes for any one voice to silence the rest?

@Marie – So true. This should go on a T-shirt.

@Brandon – As a data geek myself, I'm the first to admit the tremendously important role data mining has in understanding digital behavior. However, my hangup here is that, as I argue in the article, empathy and compassion are major drivers of (true) activism (as opposed to the kinds of activities we engage in for peer approval and validation), yet these are emotions we are still profoundly unable to quantify and measure. They're phenomena best assessed in context, in experience, and by refusing to immerse himself in that context and have that experience, Gladwell is being an incredibly poor researcher.
@Kima – What a wonderful case study in approaching novelty with openness, not judgement. "Platformness" is an eloquent way to capture the evolution of media utility.

@Jason – Well put.

@Kevin "The revolution might not be tweeted, but the instructions for it will be." Gahhh, I KNEW there was a better title for my article out there! This too should go on a T-shirt.

@David A. (Before I respond, you seem to actually have the answer to the eternal chicken-or-the-egg question – please, do share!) I fail to see how the injustice in Yemen, an injustice that stormed into a man's house and slapped his child unconscious, isn't real and present. It was inflicted upon him precisely because he made information available that was inconvenient to the culture of resistance and it was in that same culture that the activist group chose to do just about the same, only on YouTube. I actually tried to find some – any – information on individual members of that group and their fate after the incident, but could find nothing. (Ironic, isn't it?) YouTube was their lunch counter, only it was 24 time zones wide, and they stood on it facing very real threats, calling the world's attention to very real issues.

@Michael – While your examples are tragically true, they're still examples of individuals or subgroups holding such beliefs. Even when you take something institutionalized, like the death penalty or bans against same-sex marriage, a large portion of people – the majority, even – may condemn in and be vocal about it and lobby against it and engage in all these other forms of resistance that would've been severely punishable and punished a century ago. THIS is the culture I speak of, this whole ecosystem of push and pull where the very opportunity for open debate exists and, in the long run, can effect change. (As we're starting to see with the slow but steady demise of the death penalty and, more recently, the Proposition 8 ruling.) Let's by all means remain aware of the bigotry that takes place so we can try to fight it, but let's also be realistic and appreciative of the fact that we live in an era where we CAN fight it if we so choose, even though we might face resistance and the fight may be long one.
Maria Popova

I need to study for my Canadian citizenship test (due in 32 hrs) and not post comments ;-), but Maria just made my day so I wanted to say thank you!!!

"@Kima – What a wonderful case study in approaching novelty with openness, not judgement. "Platformness" is an eloquent way to capture the evolution of media utility."

Now the pressure is on me to keep writing and do it up to a higher standard! ;-)
Goran Kimovski

Malcolm was right. Sorry.

You know what? I re-re-read the Gladwell article and I think I can see where Gladwell went wrong. In a long paragraph beginning at the bottom of page 46 he quotes the words of a Darfur spokesperson. Note the phrase "This is a powerful mechanism to engage THIS CRITICAL population." emphasis mine. Gladwell asserts "In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by making people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough..."
Note if you understand what the Darfur spokesperson meant by the term "CRITICAL population" not as a discussion of critical mass, as in physics, or as a clause of logical necessity, but rather as critical in the same sense of the phrase "critical friends" earlier in Gladwell's article at the top of page 45 , meaning friends who were "critical of the regime", then you see Gladwell's turn of phrase and much of what you all have said in favor of networks as activism holds true. People who are critical of a regime or a practice (the status quo Gladwell would have them challenge) ...were empirically found to be more likely to join the protest.
David A

Given that we're discussing awareness and social action here, I hope to bring to your attention a movie that I personally think is more disturbing than Waiting for Superman and deserves a lot bigger audience to think about the question it asks and engage in a discussion just as Waiting for Superman seems to do!

As we're discussing about the state of reading here, I think there's a bigger problem with education. Waiting for Superman addresses some part of it, but I think a little obscure film I've got a chance to see at a film festival screening in Vancouver brings up even bigger questions than Waiting for Superman!

Sir Ken Robinson certainly thinks it is an important movie!

I filmed the Q&A and tried to put some thoughts of my own around the movie Schooling the Children: The White Man's Last Burden at http://mybin.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/while-us-waits-for-superman-kids-in-the-world-are-drafted-as-failures/

I hope to intrigue you to visit the movie site, as I did with Sir Ken Robinson, and share it to as many people as possible, to give them a chance to think about the question it asks!
Goran Kimovski

Not seeing a lot of rebuttal or refutation in this piece. The case of El-Khewani isn't an example of *social change* — it's an example of getting one guy sprung from prison. (Rightly so, btw.) And even if social media played a role in distributing the YouTube video, that only illustrates Gladwell's "weak-tie" notion: It required an investment of a few mouse clicks to pass it along. In the old days, it might've happened through a letter-writing campaign or call-your-congressman effort.

Empathy isn't activism. Awareness isn't activism. That they are preconditons for activism is both obvious (I can't imagine Gladwell arguing that) and not new. That the internet and social media spread those things more quickly is also true, and again, I can't imagine Gladwell arguing against it. The folks who might be moved by that awareness to "start NGOs, invent humanitarian design solutions or lobby in Congress" are the same people who would have done those things regardless of how they learned about the issues. They're also the people most likely to already be aware of those issues, through many channels, not just social media. And Penenberg's use of Twitter in his reporting is less a case of the triumph of social media than a smart journalist adapting to new tools.

On the other hand, your argument gained traction with the examples of Colombia, Bulgaria and the 13-year-old kid in Mumbai. More focus on those and similar broad-scale events would have been more persuasive in your attempt to debunk Gladwell, I think.

Scott Dickensheets

The point about social media is "Insight" and not "Information".
We still need razor sharp minds to distill and filter this insight from heaps of information.

Interesting. But If Mr Gladwell is a nun reviewing Kama Sutra, all the internet gurus seem to me porn actors speaking about love!
Marco Decio

Malcolm is right. Social media looks like a fad to me. All 'friendships' made through social media are not real friends unless you have subsequently built a personal rapportement with them. They are essentially 'disposable'. If you are searching for particle physics videos, and none of your friends are students or scientists even by any remote chance, do you want to get empty search results because 'no one in your social circle is a particle physicist'? The web was designed for faceless information distribution and so shall it remain, until a better way is found. And social media is not that way. May be crowdsourcing is. What friends in your so-called social circle can and will do is to point out resources on the web where you can get what you want by anonymous request. But ultimately you still request and get the information anonymously. I am surprised by the amount of money and other resources being allocated to social media.
Mohan Arun L

The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens?

"Does the internet actually inhibit, not encourage democracy? In this new RSA Animate adapted from a talk given in 2009, Evgeny Morozov presents an alternative take on 'cyber-utopianism' - the seductive idea that the internet plays a largely emancipatory role in global politics.

Exposing some idealistic myths about freedom and technology (during Iran's 'twitter revolution' fewer than 20,000 Twitter users actually took part), Evgeny argues for some realism about the actual uses and abuses of the internet."

C. Tate

Social media. An effective tool for social change? Yes! Absolutely. A case in point:

European far-right membership rises thanks to global power of social media: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/digital-culture/social-networking/european-far-right-membership-rises-thanks-to-global-power-of-social-media/article2114203/

Talk about "social change" and specify what you mean specifically. Or, don't talk about change at all. In other words, place your politics on the table.

Jobs | July 24