Josh Begley on Thursday, Nov. 4th
by Josh Begley
After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about activism and social media in the New Yorker on Monday, naturally, I went to Facebook. Already a bit of a Gladwell-hater for his cherry-picked evidence and totalizing claims, this piece hit particularly close to home. For one, I spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter. Two, I like to think of myself as a student of the (long) civil rights era. And as someone who’s of the opinion “that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating,” I’m clearly the type of person Gladwell’s piece meant to “give pause.”
Well, it did.
As I scanned my news feed, pining over a snarky comment to make while at the same time preparing my profile-post endorsement, I noticed that one of my overachieving friends, Jamilah King, had beat me to the punch.
Damn. Whatever, I’ll re-share it via her and get back to work. After all, there are Facebook pages to build, petitions to be retweeted, weak ties to cultivate, etc…
Twenty minutes later, walking from the café, I pulled out my phone and deleted it. Too negative, I thought. (Not to mention haughty.) Also easy to be misread: could be interpreted that my “personal antipathy” was a result of his commentary about online activists (a field I’ve drifted into over the past year) rather than just approximating my usual frustration with his writing — a formula that takes pop-y sociological findings, a few filleted historical anecdotes, and extrapolates from them conclusions that are often too neat to swallow.
Unpacking the back-and-forth about whether or not I should post a New Yorker article on my Facebook profile, of course, is about as self-indulgent as it gets. But nevertheless, I went there: What if I develop “strong-ties” to these “weak-tie” networks? Is that what keeps me up late at night “buffing the edges” of my online profiles? (Clearly narcissism plays a role in these vacillations too.) There was something else going on though — something far more worth thinking about than the psychology of my online posting habits. Despite my usual propensity to deconstruct, to poke holes, to be an apologist for the marvelous ‘technological revolution’ underfoot, I was generally in agreement with Gladwell.
Wait, what? Malcolm Gladwell? I hardly ever like what he writes. (And neither do a lot of other people — especially this time.) I tend to find his analyses trite; his cult-ish following triter. But there’s something to be said for the kinds of historical questions he is asking, irrespective of the fact that he may be confusing the tools with the tactics. What are the consequences of “the popular media line on digital activism” — namely, that Twitter has reinvented Revolution (be it vis-à-vis Moldova, Iran, Darfur, or elsewhere)? How do the “small asks” that Facebook and Twitter seamlessly facilitate end up impacting our propensity to make larger sacrifices? Put differently, does feeling good about signing a petition or “liking” a page have the potential to make me more complacent — feeling like I’m doing my part in my armchair (and I am!), but perhaps less inclined to go outside and meet my friends face-to-face?
Now, I say this as someone who develops Facebook strategies and installs “like” buttons for a living. So take it with a grain (or two) of salt. But there are important questions — ones I don’t yet know how to answer — that Gladwell’s piece has helped raise for me. And as much as I hate to say it, especially considering the incisive analyses bubbling up about how Gladwell is anywhere from partially right to 100% wrong, I want to stand by the fact that this is an important piece of thinking, in a big-picture sense, for the work that online activists — or clicktivists, as some have put it — do.
I also want to offer a few caveats. I find it important that Gladwell uses the “strong-ties” of the short civil rights era to make a point about the discipline and sacrifice needed to even get to Greensboro. If for no other reason than because the soft-focus (often King-centric) narrative of the civil rights movement is inevitably today’s dominating analogy for broad social and political appeals. (Not to mention brand strategies.)
But I think Gladwell misses an opportunity to clarify his point about organized action and communications tools (one he made today, in a live-chat about the article) being two separate, though related, things. Were he to do this, I think he could have diffused some of the blowback he’s been getting about confusing the baby with the bathwater — namely by paying lip service to the fact that, while incredibly agile publishing platforms, no online activist in their right mind thinks Facebook and Twitter, acting alone, are panaceas for all the world’s ills.
To piggy-back on that last point, Gladwell would have done well to point his readers in the direction of groups who are using social media to plan more traditional “high-risk” confrontations, and perhaps evaluate the efficacy of those efforts. Because if there’s anything everyone can agree on, it’s that no effective organizing can afford to be just online or just offline anymore. The potential for a successful marriage of methods can be seen in a number of places, although to be honest, I see the groundwork for it most clearly within the emerging network of young people advocating around immigration issues. Not only are they brave, disciplined, and ready to make “real” sacrifices; they are also thinking about symbolism and “mass media strategy” in creative ways.
Anyway, as Alexis Madrigal notes in the Atlantic: “People are still learning how to organize online. The tools are new.” Indeed they are. So before the debate spins in one direction or the other about whether we should unplug completely or just hunker down and build our own Facebook, let’s remember the humbling role history can play. More specifically — and this is perhaps more a note to myself than anyone — let’s continue to ask the questions Gladwell is raising, and not just brush them aside because of the packaging they’ve arrived in.
In sum, I think Gladwell is right about the stakes:
This model of organizing […] makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.
And with that, I suppose it’s back to Facebook.
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Josh Begley is an online organizer with roots in the non-profit sector. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and the creator of RaceBox.org.