Gladwell on Social Activism in the Age of Twitter

ATM-Object-Greensboro-Woolworth-lunch-counter-388 I finally finished Gladwell's New Yorker article about social activism and new media. Gladwell believes that Twitter and Facebook can't help bring about serious social activism, because those online connections are weak. Real social activism requires hierarchical leadership and strong connections among members.

I'll come back to Gladwell and his critics in later posts. But I do have to say that I loved his writing about how the civil rights movement caught fire. 

By the following Monday, sit-ins had spread to Winston-Salem, twenty-five miles away, and Durham, fifty miles away. The day after that, students at Fayetteville State Teachers College and at Johnson C. Smith College, in Charlotte, joined in, followed on Wednesday by students at St. Augustine’s College and Shaw University, in Raleigh. On Thursday and Friday, the protest crossed state lines, surfacing in Hampton and Portsmouth, Virginia, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the end of the month, there were sit-ins throughout the South, as far west as Texas. “I asked every student I met what the first day of the sitdowns had been like on his campus,” the political theorist Michael Walzer wrote in Dissent. “The answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go.’ ” Some seventy thousand students eventually took part. Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.

8 thoughts on “Gladwell on Social Activism in the Age of Twitter

  1. More foolishness from this guy. Social media were crucial in Iran. He is charming and pleasant to read, but his wisdom is all conventional. A young Tom Friedman.

  2. I guess it’s okay, though I don’t see what’s so special about it. More importantly, does he ever bother to explain _how_ the movement spread? _That_ it spread quickly is easy enough to know, but surely _how_ it did so is more important to his thesis. I’m not much of a fan of his and not that interested in the underlying debate, so I doubt I’ll read the article, but unless he gets around, fairly soon, to explaining _how_ the movement spread so quickly, I’d think it was mostly a superficial bit of writing that doesn’t really inform, so I’d be interested to hear if he does do that at all.

  3. He’s absolutely right that activism requires strong connections between members, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the strengths of hierarchical leadership also carry serious drawbacks that are potentially more damaging to a movement than any drawbacks from social media.
    Just sayin’…I’d love to see his analysis of the damage an undemocratic leadership, or one that is rife with racism and sexism can do. There’s a reason leaders are targeted by the opposition, and it’s because so few people are able to balance their ability to lead strategically with an openness to democracy in their institution, and the openness to and recognition of new talent (including new talent that doesn’t necessarily resemble them). So. Take out the leader, and you’ve taken out the group. Or, if the leader has those flaws….exploit them, and the group will dissolve itself (people don’t join social activist movements looking for more opportunities to be oppressed or dismissed).

  4. Yeah, I didn’t pick out a great passage. I did find his story telling about the sit-ins really interesting though.
    I liked the piece, because I have also been a critic of some of the superficial politics that happens online, but I’ll get to it. I want to talk about Farrell’s review at CT and another paper. I thought I would drag the topic out over a few posts.

  5. There’s a danger to all the social media. Evidently the Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes this spring were so bad in part because of SMS messages. A rumor went around alleging some rapes, so people started killing and burning down houses. SMS/Twitter do not necessarily guarantee critical thinking.

  6. Julie G.,
    I think I’ve heard that text messaging has been behind a lot of fast-spreading rumors. The Miss World riots in Nigeria were inflamed by text messages.
    I have a vague recollection of texting being involved in the Danish Mohammed unrest and violence of five years, but I’m not immediately finding any news stories.

  7. Rumors of rape leading to violence is a cause for spreading racial violence? And SMS/Twitter gets the blame? Hm, I wonder what slaves and freedmen in the American South prior to 1965 think about that hypothesis? This is a tempest in teapot. Social media are value neutral. They don’c cause violence or social change. People do. And people use social media. Some use it well, some use it badly. And this is burning up the nets?
    Next week my school’s GSA in association with CAFE(multicultural group) and Assembly Board and student government will be showing a couple of the It Get’s Better videos. Which they found out through FB. Then the student leaders are going to ask students, “Why wait?” Why not make things better right now so HS isn’t so miserable? We’ll have suggestions boxes in key locations for students to make suggestions and then we’ll do our best to implement them. It wouldn’t have been thought of without facebook, and it won’t happen without some hard work on the ground.

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