Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.


Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.


wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.