Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted

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Full text can be found here [1]

Dr. Jussi Parikka's[2] response [3]

Dr. Henry Jenkins's response[4]



  • comparison civil rights movement and social platforms
  • strong-tie vs. weak-tie networks
  • social platforms effective in increasing participation
  • social media is not hierarchical
  • social media makes it easier to express activism
  • with social media it is harder to have a real effect


Malcolm Gladwell: Small Change. Why the revolution will not be tweeted. In: The New Yorker, October 4, 2010.

  1. Social media can't provide what social change has always required.
  2. Case study > Greensboro sit-ins (1960)
    • Four college students sat at the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter reserved for whites in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although they were refused service, they were allowed to stay at the counter. During the following days other students joined in until the number of protesters swelled to six hundred.
    • Sit-ins, as strategy of nonviolent resistance during the African-American Civil Rights Movement, spread throughout the South. Described as a "[…]fever. Everyone wanted to go." (Michael Walzer) Some 17.000 students eventually took part.
    • Events happened without email, texting, Facbook, or Twitter.
  3. New tools of social media
    • New tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With social media the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.
  4. Case study > Moldova (2009)
    • Protest against the country's Communist government.
    • Demonstrators had been brought together by Twitter ("Twitter Revolution").
  5. Case study > Tehran (2009)
    • Twitter empowered people to "stand up for freedom and democracy" (Mark Pfeifer).
    • Twitter was asked to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Website, because tool shouldn't be out of service at the height of the demonstrations.
  6. James K. Glassman > Sites like Facebook
    • "give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was 'eating our lunch on the Internet'. That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation."
  7. Strong, and puzzling claims – Gladwell questions these statements.
    • Moldova > Twitter had scant internal significance, only a few Twitter accounts exist.
    • Iran > People tweeting where almost all in the West and english tweets.
    • "The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past – even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing ofi mportance to consider before the days of television and the Internet." (Robert Darnton)
  8. We seem to have forgotten what acitivism is.
  9. Case study > Mississippi Freedom Summer Projekt (1964)
    • Campaign of the civil-rights movement, where hundreds of Norhtern, largely white unpaid volunteers were recruited to run Freedom Schools, register black voters, and raise civil-rights awareness in the South. Three volunteers were killed, churches set on fire and houses bombed. Volunteers were beaten, shot at, and arrasted.
  10. What makes people capable of this kind of activism?
    • High-risk activism is a "strong-tie" phenomenon. (Doug McAdam)
  11. Case study > Red Brigades (1970s)
    • 70% of recrutis had at least one good friend already in the organisation.
  12. Case study > East Germany (1989)
    • Demonstrations that let to the fall of the Berlin Wall are a strong-tie phenomenon.
    • Opposition movement consisted of several hundred groups with limited contact.
    • The more firends you had who were critical of the regime teh more likely you were to join the protest.
  13. Gladwell states that activism associated with social media is different.
    • Platforms of social media built around weak ties.
    • Twitter es a way of following people you may never have met.
    • Weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.
  14. Book by Aaker / Smith > "The Dragonfly Effect. Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change"
    • Email about leukemia patient looking for donar among her personal contacts. Facebook pages and YouTube videos were devoted to the Help Sameer campaign. Nearly 25.000 people were registered in the bone-marrow database, and the patient found a match.
    • Donating bone marrow doesn't infolve financial or personal risk.
    • Kind of commitment that brings only social acknowledgment and praise.
  15. "Social networks are aprticularly effective at increasing motivation." (Aaker / Smith)
    • Gladwell disagrees, saying that social networks are effective at increasing participation.
    • Case studies > charities on Facebook (Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members)
    • Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.
  16. Civil-rights movement was high-risk acitivism, but also strategic activism.
    • N.A.A.C.P. as a centralized organization, running from NY.
    • Possible locations, plans, training sessions, ground work.
    • Division of labour, various standing committees and disciplined groups.
  17. Distinction between traditional activism and its online variant.
    • Social media is not a hierarchical organization.
    • Networks are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies.
    • No central authority, decisions are made through consensus, loose ties.
  18. Case study > Wikipedia
    • Has no central editor, who directs and corrects each entry.
    • Putting together each entry is self-organized.
  19. Problems of networks
    • Networks have difficultiy reaching consensus and setting golas.
    • Difficult choice about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction.
  20. Case study > Palestine Liberation Organization
    • Originated as a network, therefore had trouble as it grew.
    • Absence of central authority, unchecked autonomy of rival groups, inability to arbitrate quarrels through formal mechanisms, made the P.L.O. excessively vulnerable to outside manipulation and internatl strife.
  21. Case study > Red Army Faction (1970s)
    • Left-wing terrorists organized hierarchically, professional management and division of labour.
  22. Case study > Al Qaeda
    • Al Qaeda most dangerous when it was a unified hierarchy.
    • Dissipated into a network, it has proved far less effective.
  23. Case study > Montgomery bus boycott
    • Required participation of 10,000 of people who depended on public transit.
    • Maintaining moral, free alternative private carpool serivce.
  24. Boycotts, sit-ins, nonvialent confrontations are high-risk strategies.
    • They leave little room for conflict and error.
    • Discipline and strategy cannot be provided by online social media.
  25. Book by Clay Shirky > "Here Comes Everybody"
    • Story that demonstrates the organizing power of the Internet.
    • Stolen phone, backtracked, published online, pressure.
  26. Conclusio
    • It makes it easier for acitivists to express themselves.
    • And harder for that expression to have any impact.
    • A weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teenage girls.

Danny Butt (facebook-response):

  • Gladwell falls for a narrow political field; there is also personal politics of the mentioned "weak" and "strong" ties.
  • Social media might not mobilize people but sharpens their senses on what they themselves and their contacts do care for.
  • The effect is rather about subtle rearrangement of political imagination that is not directly measurable.

Jussi Parikka: Malcolm Gladwell and the (end) for something that never started? (Network Politics)

  • Ironically Gladwell's article criticizing "strong" and "weak" ties of social networks was shared over 13.000 times and the author himself has 30,651 facebook fans. (19.10.2010: 32,041)
  • When Gladwell contrasts "liking" with the action of sit-ins of the race movements in the 1960s he describes what Jodi Dean or Slavoj Zizek called "interpassivity", as opposed to "interactivity".
  • Parikka critisizes that Gladwell's understanding of network culture is mainstream-focused and therefor misses out the exciting aspects of network politics.
  • Facebook is not horizontal or non-hierachical.
  • Gladwell's attack is part of a wider consumerization and business adaptation of "social activism".
  • "Social media cannot change the real world" assumes that social media is not part of reality.
  • Parikka accuses Gladwell of lacking understanding of network culture, and presumes a technophobic attitude among journalists in general.
  • Social media are a threat to established print-based journalistic institutions.
  • Social media practices and platforms are aggregation sites for collecting information for marketing.
  • This, as opposed to social activism in the 60s and 70s, should be rather a starting point of an argument than its conclusion.
  • Media logic in the 1960s and 1970s was different and very much embedded in the at that time emerging audiovisual, representational media.
  • "What is politics" refers to the respective understanding of a time, so Parrika asks what the new forms of politics are.
  • The legacy of the 1960s has been reworked through situationist ideas, art practices and the vocabulary and actions of net activists.
  • The politics of networks is not only inherited from the representational modes of the "old" big era of journalism - it is also about writing with software, demanding new language of code.
  • The rethinking of social media is shaped through the development of new ideas, discourses, tools and platforms.

Henry Jenkins: Perhaps a revolution is not what we need

  • Gladwell is trying to compare movements (civil rights movement) and platforms (facebook).
  • We do not live on a platform we live across platforms, we choose the tools.

Ramesh Srinivasan:

  • The success of Algiers' resistance network was its horizontal structure; no point of centrality leaves no point for attack.
  • Organization and decentralization need not to be mutually exclusive.
  • One cannot compare social media use (passive, little commitment, weak ties) with successful revolutions (require commitment and organization).
  • Elements of social media can be utilized to generate and cement ties, spreading awareness via weak ties.
  • In the case of Kyrgyzstan Twitter was as a medium serving the purpose of refining a message and philosophy and connecting small but influential groups of activists. (the strong ties made the difference through the medium)

Kevin Driscoll:

  • Gladwell's argumentation suffers lacks in technology and history.
  • Twitter is a non-prescriptive communication platform.
  • The 140 character limit makes it compatible to even old cellphones.
  • Twitter enabled thousands of people with internet access to spend days fixated on a geographically-remote street protest in Tehran.

Amin Vafa:

  • Emigrated Iranians could follow the protests and provided small bridges between Iran and the English-speaking world.
  • Twitter enabled people to act and exercise strong ties (Iranian family, friends) on a transnational scale.
  • Gladwell describes the civil rights movement as "disciplined", "precise", "strategic".

Steven Classen:

  • Our cultural memory of the civil-rights era is incomplete, the "high-risk" activist movements leave little traces, gaps and discrepancies make research on social movements difficult.
  • "High-risk" and "Low-risk" activism can differ based on geographic, cultural and religious values.
  • Non-hierachical, network solutions: "Frown Power", Stetson Kennedy or "It Gets Better", Dan Savage effect a slow quiet change rather than large-scale revolution.
  • "Real" world activism depends on the tactical selection of social media technologies.

Discussion Notes & Afterthoughts:

  • conservative view of network (PLO)
  • Facebook: Can we communicate to all in the same way?

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