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.”
Here are a few more that are interesting:
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?