What makes people listen? Gladwell Response Round Up

Above: Steve Mutinda, with Ushahidi, a platform for crowdsourced data collection and visualization, shows off a Java app that he developed.  Photo by Erik Hersman.

It’s been a little over three weeks since Malcolm Gladwell posted his article in the New Yorker on why the revolution should not be tweeted.  Since then, a pretty substantial online debate has ensued, with fans and advocates of transmedia tools posting their thoughts and reactions. Many have pointed out that these tools are just tools, and that he’s missing the mark in analyzing social movements.  I thought that it might be helpful to consolidate the links to some of these thoughts here on CoLab for those interested in the debate:

Henry Jenkins, former MIT professor now at the USC Annenberg School for Communications, breaks down Gladwell’s argument by illustrating that he is comparing apples to oranges, or in this case, movements to platforms.  As he says,

“There’s a tendency to look at [Twitter] and try to read its features as totally embodying a new kind of public, but that is profoundly misleading. We do not live on a platform; we live across platforms.”

In other words, no one ever attributed the victories of the civil rights movement to the cardboard and markers that it used for its protest signs.

Beth Kanter, a nonprofit media consultant, talks about how social media tools reinforce strong ties as well as weak ties.  Outside of her post, there is a great deal of evidence that shows that the people we communicate with most through the mobile phones and the internet are people who live within just a few miles.  Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci writes about the potential for the internet to bridge across tightly knit networks of strong ties, connecting and fusing networks.

From a movement building perspective, Lina Srivastava points out that Gladwell’s argument of elevating the tools rather than the activism is one that movement builders have been having for a while.  She finds however, that his analysis of offline movements as centralized and online movements as decentralized is simplistic, and that he shouldn’t be so quick to discredit decentralized, horizontal movements. Sasha Costanza-Chock, who collaborated with the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California to create VozMob, a project where daylaborers in LA share their stories by mobile phone, reminds us that it’s a good idea that Gladwell’s article directs us away from a technodeterministic lens.  He makes a straightforward suggestion:

“… we can avoid both cyberutopianism and don’t-tweet-on-me reactions with a quite simple strategy: look at how ‘real’ social movements communicate, rather than start with communication tools and then argue about whether they are revolutionary.”

A number of people point to concrete examples where social media played an important role in movement building, including in Kashmir and among DREAM Act student activists.

Here are a few more that are interesting:

•  Alexis Madrigal – Gladwell on Social Media and Activism

•  Nancy Scola – Malcolm Gladwell Searches Twitter for ’60s Activism

•  Kevin Driscoll – Perhaps a revolution is not what we need

So, my two cents?

I’ve mostly been enjoying the debate, and many have touched on my thoughts already.  I do, however, think that Gladwell’s article is a missed opportunity.

I won’t be quick to defend social media tools and their promise of increased democracy.  I know that tools don’t organize people.  People organize people.  The heart of good social change work is in good face-to-face relationships, through sharing stories, building trust and exchanging skills.  It is true that the digital divide means that low-income communities of color lack access to laptops, broadband connections, and the media literacy to interpret these tools.  And, as Malia Lazu points out, there are some good historic reasons that social change activists hold on to their paranoia of technology.  This more generalized theme is what resonated with me when when I first read Gladwell’s article—and probably why three of my friends forwarded me the link again just last week.

However, simply naming this critique does not move us forward.  Recently, I had a conversation with Thaddeus Miles, a longtime community leader who works extensively with low-income youth in Boston.  When talking about generational misunderstandings and technology, he just leaned back in his chair.   He said he couldn’t figure out how to get the older generation on board with using newer technology to mentor youth, and that this was leading to gaps in mentorship.  With the older generation suspicious of technology, they are missing out on a way to meet young people where they are—an opportunity to connect to young people through small, sustained forms of communication like text messaging & social networking.  It was through these tools that Boston youth were able to mobilize over 800 young people to ensure the safety of city funds for summer youth jobs.  As Miles says,

“I don’t even send my youth emails anymore.  They rarely check their emails, and if they do, they probably wouldn’t open mine– from an old guy.  I just text them.”

If Malcolm Gladwell was really concerned about movement building, he would have approached his piece differently, particularly with such a widely read platform like the New Yorker.  He could have moved his readers toward bridging generational understanding and, while acknowledging the limitations of technological tools, lifted up stories of what else is possible.

Stefanie Ritoper is a Masters in City Planning Candidate at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.  With a background in community-based research and film, she is interested in increasing economic opportunities for diverse low-income communities and using multimedia tools to engage people in public processes.  She has long distance love for her hometown of Los Angeles.  This post is part of her series, What Makes People Listen?

3 Responses to “What makes people listen? Gladwell Response Round Up”

  1. George Por says:

    I want to comment on the blindfold of Gladwell (and his critics) regarding the revolutionary potential of social media, which stems from subjective and objective factors.

    What I mean by subjective factor is his ideological mistake of mixing the conditions and requirements for political revolution vs. social revolution. The first is focused on overthrowing governments and changing the power structures. The second is a much deeper one, focused on reweaving the very fabric of social relationships, including between genders, producers and consumers, thinkers and doers, and ending the repressive division of labor that has been defining human beings and “human resources” serving the owners of the means of production.

    The fact that the latter became an asset of everyone who has (access to) a personal computer created the material base for the social revolution that is currently happening in the post-industrial world. Alexander Berkman defines social revolution as the reorganization of the industrial, economic life of the country and consequently also of the entire structure of society.” (Wikipedia)

    That is not a revolution of us vs. them, not left vs. right, not good guys vs. bad guys. It’s about creating a commons-based society, a better world that works for everyone, free from exploitation and the alienation of human creativity from its source.

    Social revolution is based on bottom-up self-organization as opposed to the avanguard party-led, political revolutions. It calls for the collective intelligence of the multitudes rather than the ironclad discipline if a revolutionary elite. That’s why the power of weak-ties (and the social media supporting and amplifying them) can trump the power of strong-ties.

    The objective factor that contributed to Gladwell’s shortsightedness is that today’s transition to the new, Emerging Planetary Reality is still in its infancy, the movement of its harbingers is fragmented and the lay lines of the new land are barely visible. It’s not an easy job to see the contours of a new world in phenomena as diverse as the open source and “open everything” movements, the Commons movement, the rise of evolutionary spirituality, the blessed unrest that Paul Hawken speaks about, the transhumanists, Local food, Transition Towns, social learning, citizen scientists, complementary currencies, crowd–accelerated innovation using web video that TED’s Chris Anderson talked about recently, etc.

    One would have to rise above the ground to reach an altitude from which the direction of all those trends can become visible. Actually, one would probably be not enough; it would take a team of evolutionary cartographers to compare notes and start mapping the rich ecosystem of emergence into a positive future, and the roles that social media are playing in that.

    Gandhi said, you can’t build a movement without a newspaper. Today he would say, not without the wise uses of social media.

  2. Stef, thank you for a thoughtful post. I think we should also consider the theoretical context of the argument. Gladwell implied a simple version of social capital theory about the role of strong and weak ties for large-scale social movements. However, we have a wide range of theories where an improved ability to communication could result in changed outcomes. Just a few examples:

    – Targeted Transparency (Fung, Graham, Weil) argues certain information, delivered in the right way, can achieve policy goals by shifting the behaviors of market actors. Economists talk about information asymmetry or problems all the time.
    – Anthony Downs’ Economic Theory of Democracy argues voters actually might vote differently if they know more or less about various candidates, but will not be motivated to get the information themselves. maybe this explains the huge sums spent on advertising and direct mail each election!
    – Civic voluntarism theory posits one of the causes of civic activities is recruitment. If the tools contribute to the ease of recruitment, we might see a difference.

    These are just a few I can think of off the top of my head. While Gladwell is a useful critique of some of the more utopian claims being made, we also shouldn’t let him unnecessarily limit our thinking about the potential effect of various uses of these tools. In fact, the kind of empirical research you propose would help clarify these theories or generate more.

  3. Stefanie says:

    @George – Thanks for your comment and thoughts. I especially like the Gandhi quote about newspapers– I hadn’t heard that one. I also agree with your idea of focusing social change on interpersonal relationships, and your point of creating common ground. On the topic of strong v. weak ties, Zeynep Tufekci’s post adds another dimension to the strong versus weak ties binary, which I think you might find interesting. In your mention of organic, bottom up social change versus change by the vanguard, I think you are pointing to something important about transparency and permeability in groups of people working for change. Sometimes input through social media tools force a cultural change in organizations or groups that are used to having more control over who speaks and who decides. It is a threatening prospect to have to open up a group to this kind of outside input, and not all groups are willing to do this– but I think that time will show that the groups that are able to adapt will ultimately be more resilient.

    @Rob – Thanks for the theory brainstorm! It is really interesting to look at this issue from the angle of information asymmetry. In planning, we often name the governmental, private and nonprofit sectors, but forget about mass media and informal communications channels… which are huge drivers of the public’s understanding about the issues and hugely affect participation. I sometimes wonder if it is the failure of this fourth sector to provide bold and informed alternative viewpoints that is leading us to see new media tools in this dichotomous way, as either the savior of or the enemy to democratic engagement. Related to this point, Baratunde posts a video to his appearance on a panel about comedy and politics at the new school. It is somewhat long (but thoroughly entertaining), but in one part of it, they talk about how absurd it is that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show– as a comedy satire show–has stepped in as a major source of news and political opinion. It seems like our means of receiving information are in such a broken state that any new platform is seen as having increased responsibility to correct the democratic process.