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Malcolm Gladwell Searches Twitter for '60s Activism

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, September 27 2010

Slactivism gets the Malcolm Gladwell treatment in his new New Yorker piece out today.

Gladwell starts out promisingly enough. Lost in some of the froth of excitement over social media in recent years has been some fairly major, foundation-shaking questions, and Gladwell gets them. Somehow, Gladwell points out at the start, the '60s Woolworth's lunch counter protests that helped trigger the transformation of the American South somehow managed to take place without the benefit of "email, texting, Facebook, or Twitter." The subtext of Gladwell's premise: that as thinking people, even ones who love tech, we have to admit that the history of the world is replete with examples of people figuring out how to gather and change the future's arc, even before the invention of Twitter four years ago. Gladwell focuses in on the 1960s civil rights movement, but there are of course many others. The American abolition movement. Prohibition. The rise of modern conservatism. Barry Goldwater. The decolonization of Africa. The Vietnam war protests. Heck, Christianity is a case study in social organizing, spread primarily through talking.

So, a good start. But where Gladwell seems guilty of contributing more to the froth than the substance is where he goes from questioning to drawing the conclusion that enormous personal courage that characterizes the desegregation of the mid-20th century American South is found but in pale imitation in the modern by the so-called "Twitter revolution" in Iran, circa last summer. Too much was made of the role of social media in the latter, I think we can all now safely admit. But Gladwell's conclusion as to why isn't particularly illuminating. Gladwell argues that we, modern humans, have lost the ability to differentiate between our online "friends" and the people who would stick our their necks (or sit down their rear ends, as the case may be) when the revolution finally comes.

"The evangelists of social media," are particularly guilty, writes Gladwell. "They seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960." Gladwell's clearly exaggerating for effect. But even dialed back a bit to sane levels, the question of personal ties seems a curious place for Gladwell to go searching for answers, at least as far as the Iran case goes; plenty of those protestors, it seems, felt a strong personal connection to those Iranians they were protesting with and those for whom they were protesting -- strong enough, at least, to get some of them killed in the streets of Tehran and many others biding their time now in Iranian jails.

The hard questions encouragingly raised by Gladwell -- Is this technology-meets-politics thing really new and different? Or is this old wine, new bottle? And if it is different, how, exactly? -- are ones that need to be central to this field. But Gladwell seems to run off in the wrong direction in search of pre-mature conclusions. And 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. In many cases, they were physical assaults, like the Vietnam draft or racial segregation. But more broadly, 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?

Rather than comparing Woolworth sit-ins to the much-hyped Twitter Revolution, finding the latter coming up wanting, and stopping there, Gladwell might have given some space in the New Yorker to dig a little deeper to find examples of folks using technology to organize in intriguing, successful ways. The examples are there, too. The Obama campaign, for one. How the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is using the web to bring back together their band of brothers and sisters. The aforementioned Greater Greater Washington. They may be few, but it's still early. We're only four years into the Twitter era, after all.