Whenever an argument about digital activism attracts wide attention, there is an opportunity not only to learn from the argument itself but from reactions to that argument. Malcolm Gladwell’s widely-read critique of digital activism as being a pale comparison to more effective pre-digital forms of activism inspired many bloggers to express their own opinions on the relative value of the practice of using digital technology for activism. Here are some of the most interesting arguments. (Other bloggers, like Beth Kanter and Alexis Madrigal, have also created posts aggregating commentary on this topic.)
Not surprisingly, the blogosphere was critical of Gladwell’s cyber-pessimism, and they made rigorous critiques of his argument. Gladwell draws a strict dichotomy, arguing that the American civil right movement, characterized by offline action, strong ties, and hierarchical organization, is more effective than today’s online activism, marked by weak ties and decentralized organization. Bloggers challenged him on every element of his argument.
Challenging Gladwell’s Depiction of Digital Activism
Nancy Scola of Tech President, makes the insightful comment that Gladwell is not actually criticizing digital activism (the use of digital technology for activism) but rather slacktivism (ineffective measures that serve the ego of the “activist” more than the demands of effectiveness). By equating digital activism with slacktivism/clicktivism, its most ineffectual incarnation, Gladwell makes his argument against it rhetorically easier. David Faris uses the term “straw men” to define Gladwell’s depiction.
Challenging the Relevance of the Civil Rights Model
Like Anil Dash, Scola also notes that Gladwell’s lionization of the Civil Rights movement as the perennial model of effective activism is unreasonable.
Gladwell’s unfortunate north star, as it is for so many doubters in this arena, is that effective, strategic, engaged political activism in the year 2010 onward is going to look the same as effective, strategic, engaged political activism has looked before. But why would we assume that the complex problems facing the modern United States, at least, are best met by the march-in-the-streets activism that greeted the abuses of the 1960s? On a practical level, those problems are different… much of the building blocks of our society look different than they once did, from journalism to the nature of work to the way information moves around the world. Why assume our activism would look the same?
In another post on Tech President, Zeynep Tufekci, gets most specific about why the methods of the civil rights movement are not longer sufficient.
[There is a] mismatch between the scale of our problems (global) and the natural scale of our sociality (local)….climate change, resource depletion, economic devastation, environmental destruction and for those unfortunate to be living in particular regions of the world, war, epidemics, and dire poverty…. Lunch-counter sit-ins in a few places? Even at the national scale?…. Does anyone imagine we can organize something on that global scale without the Internet? Let me know.
Challenging the Proposition that Networks are Ineffective for Activism
A post in The Economist’s Free Exchange blog critiques Gladwell’s arguments that movements need hierarchical organization to succeed.
Another of his errors comes from downplaying the significance of resilience and redundance. The problem with a hierarchical system is that it breaks easily and catastrophically. If its leader makes a mistake or is somehow neutralised, the movement suffers a crucial blow. Networks, on the other hand, are bottom-up enterprises. They’re very difficult to shut-down or break.
Challenging Gladwell’s Brand of Web Exceptionalism
Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic, put together a post of reader comments on Gladwell’s article, which deserve a reading in full. One commenter, called Cynic, points out that Gladwell is committing the same sin as cyber-utopians by claiming that digital activism is something totally different activism of the analog era. The utopians think that digital activism is totally new and much better than analog; Gladwell thinks it it totally new and much worse. Writes Cynic:
Once, [a group of local activists] might have used the posts, or placed notices in the local paper. Today, it tweets…. But these are changes in scale, not in type…. [Gladwell] offers a declension tale, in which social networks are not merely a new and more effective version of older technologies, but a distraction…. It recapitulates the same error of which Gladwell accuses the utopians; it mistakes a new version of an old thing for something entirely new. It’s not.
Challenging Gladwell’s Dichotomies
In addition to critiquing Gladwell for falling into the “web exceptionalism” trap, bloggers like Lina Srinastava, Luke Allnutt, and Jillian York challenged his strict distinctions between online and offline activism. From Luke Allnutt’s Tangled Web blog:
The reality is that these days a good deal of activism will have some kind of digital component. As a label, cyberdissident is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Activists fighting oppressive regimes want to get their messages out and, unlike politicians who tend to fetishise technology, they just want to use the most effective tool, whether that’s a print flyer, a sit-in, or a Facebook group — or a combination of all of the above.
Gaurav Mishra of 20/20 Social underlines that many of the dichotomies that Gladwell lays out are really continuums.
Gladwell portrays traditional activism/ digital activism, strong-ties/ weak-ties, high-risk/ low-risk, and as polar opposites, when each pair falls on a continuum. The social web is but one tool in a resourceful activist’s toolkit; weak ties can become strong given a shared context while strong ties can weaken over time without it….
Gladwell underestimates the importance of weak ties in forming strong ties. We form weak ties via shared communities and shared connections in our social networks and ongoing engagement in shared communities converts weak ties into strong ties.
Gladwell forgets that low engagement actions like clicking the “like” button on Facebook are necessary for high engagement actions like making a donation, or volunteering time…. more people than ever before might step up on the ladder of engagement and undertake meaningful actions.
Image: Village Voice