Activism from Alabama to Tehran: The Difference between “Social” and “Networking”

7 Oct

“Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.”

–Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change, Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted”. The New Yorker. 4 October 2010.

Activism from Greensboro…

This article from The New Yorker is an excellent introduction to my studies of social media activism. The author, Gladwell, begins by describing the context of the Greensboro, Alabama lunch counter sit-ins in the1960s. He emphasizes that the students who participated in the sit-ins were taking a significant risk by physically placing themselves in the hostile sit-in environment and that the original four students relied heavily on intense personal connections to plan the events and recruit participants. He concludes that the kind of social activism that inspired a social revolution in the 1960s involved unwavering commitment, determination, and strong personal ties between activists.

…to Tehran.

Gladwell then mentions the revolutions in Iran and some ex-Communist countries that occurred within the past few years. Although Twitter is cited as a major source of the activism that inspired those political revolutions, several scholars as well as the author doubt that tweets from primarily western observers were truly responsible for the bulk of the risky revolts in the Middle East.

Social Ties and Expansive Networks

The rest of the article is devoted to the two major differences between activism in the 1960s and social media activism today. The first main difference is the distinction between strong social ties (the students in Greensboro all knew each other and recruited their roommates, peers, and personal friends to participate) and weak social ties (no one tweeting about the protests in Iran actually knew anyone who was in the streets of Tehran).

Second, civil rights era activism involved a hierarchical system built upon the significant commitments of individuals. Modern social media activism involves building a network that spans millions of people but is only founded on a very small commitment from each person.

Depth, Breadth, and Changing Revolution

Gladwell seems to be writing about the difference between depth and breadth when he compares types of activism. In the 60s, individuals willing to cooperate under a system of leadership made serious commitments (risking arrest, death, etc.) to make a change. Now, millions of people consider themselves to be activists because they “like” a page about a social issue on Facebook or retweet a factoid.

I agree with Gladwell when he says that serious change comes from serious commitment, and that ten devoted activists can do more making true personal connections than 100 Facebook friends can. However, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the characteristics of the Arab Spring may indicate that social media can be manipulated more effectively than only a few years ago when Gladwell published this article.

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