Gladwell: Why the revolution will not be tweeted

Author Malcolm Gladwell provides a thought-provoking critique of social media activism, contrasting its strengths and weaknesses vs. traditional activism. In doing so, he suggests some priorities for achieving systemic change vs. marginal change.
Gladwell: Why the revolution will not be tweeted
Gladwell: Why the revolution will not be tweeted (Credit: Patrick McCurdy)
Full article:
"Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted"
28 Sep 2010
The New Yorker
Malcomn Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell, author of articles and books like 'The Tipping Point' and 'Blink', has contributed a thought-provoking analysis into the relative strengths and weaknesses of face-to-face vs. online activism. While others resort to shallow and hypocritical dismissals of online activism as 'clicktivism' (including dismissing 'marketing' while marketing himself to promote his book), Malcolm's critique takes on over exuberant journalists and pundits who proclaim that Twitter and Facebook activism is the 'new activism' and ignore how activism really achieves real change.

In addition to the scrutiny e-campaigning requires to stay relevant, the article also implicitly provides ideas for how organised e-campaigning - the type most organisations engage in - can be focused to achieve the greatest campaigning impact and what value social media has in that context. While he doesn't explicitly deal with the email-to-action model of campaigning, the model that is the dominant model for organised e-campaigning, the principles he lays out can be applied to this model as well. However there is extensive criticism of Gladwell's critique  that he doesn't understand the potential of social media and that he knows little about activism.

Below are some key quotes from his article and my commentary and...but do read the original article too!

Updated: I've added the various criticism of Gladwell's article as comments and links to others' critiques.

Have we forgotten what activism is?

"Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history [the civil rights movement], we seem to have forgotten what activism is."

While the US civil rights struggle extraordinary, so was (and is) activism around the world and dating back centuries: Anti-slavery Suffragette, Ghandi, Anti-Apartheid, etc.

The dominance of one-way broadcast media after World War II ushered in an activism increasingly dominated by an attempt to influence change via press released and media coverage. The emergence of the Internet has challenged that dominance, but many people continue to cling to the fundamental assumption of this period: that publicity is sufficient for change. Ut usually isn't. Local, face-to-face activism is still fundamental for dramatically increasing the potential for real sustained change. Digital channels provide ways to facilitate and coordinate local activism and their usage is still in its infancy.

What stimulates high-risk activism?

"Activism that challenges the status quo - that attacks deeply rooted problems - is not for the faint of heart.

What makes people capable of this kind of activism? [...] What mattered more was an applicant's degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. [...] participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism is a "strong-tie" phenomenon."

Basically real social networks: people you know well, trust and are in close contact with. These have been fundamental to human society for hundreds of thousands of years so there should be no surprise here. Social network's aren't new and online social networks are a poor substitute.

This observation suggests that local groups are a highly strategic and powerful force for achieving an impact, especially in high-risk situations. While high-risk activism is now rarer in many G7 countries thanks to the high risk activism of decades and centuries past, it is still very common and necessary in most of the world as you probably know.

The implication for campaigning organisations is that they need to continue to support local groups of campaigners to connect and organise in both G7 countries and other countries around the world. A primary purpose of online organising should be to facilitate and enhance this - not replace it.

Social media activism has a tiny impact

"The kind of activism associated with social media isn't like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties."

Gladwell proposes that social media campaigns can achieve things, but not large scale changes. Like the broadcast media, social media can bring attention to a specific issue for a very limited time and result in a minor breakthrough, but Gladwell doesn't see social media campaigns as high-risk.

Yet there are growing numbers of exceptions:

  1. Blogging about torture and human rights in Egypt and other places is high-risk and has resulted in some change. It has both put people at risk and has also reduced the risks of people imprisoned or threatened.
  2. Tweeting "I'm being arrested" in a country with poor human rights record has helped ensure people don't disappear without trace.
  3. There are probably other example you can share too (please do!!)

Yet significant social media campaigning is low-risk, low commitment and low engagement. As Gladwell puts it:

"Social networks are effective at increasing participation-by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. [...] Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice."

Top-down organising is still necessary

"The students who joined the sit-ins across the [US] South during the winter of 1960 described the movement as a "fever." But the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion."

Networks and 'going-viral' have been in-vogue in the last decade and beyond. Gladwell uses historical evidence to claim that networks are necessary but insufficient for high-risk challenges to the status-quo. For example:

"In the [US Civil Right movement in the] late nineteen-fifties, there had been:

  • sixteen sit-ins in various cities throughout the South, fifteen of which were formally organized by civil-rights organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and CORE.
  • Possible locations for activism were scouted.
  • Plans were drawn up.
  • Movement activists held training sessions and retreats for would-be protesters.


The Greensboro Four were a product of this groundwork: all were members of the N.A.A.C.P. Youth Council. They had close ties with the head of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. They had been briefed on the earlier wave of sit-ins in Durham, and had been part of a series of movement meetings in activist churches.

When the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South, it did not spread indiscriminately. It spread to those cities which had pre-existing "movement centers" - a core of dedicated and trained activists ready to turn the "fever" into action."

A recent example of this in a different context was the Obama Campaign for US President: it was the local organisers and supporters who made the real difference and online tools were used to connect, enhance and engage these groups.

And yet social media is network oriented and very difficult to organise and direct, as Gladwell observes:

"the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization.

Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren't controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations."

So it isn't that social media and networks are not appropriate for campaigning, they are just best suited to low-risk situations.

The implications of this are:

  • in addition to keeping local groups, keep providing leadership for them: organise them
  • use social media for what it is well suited for: low-risk campaigning which may itself help attract supporters who may be willing to engage in high-risk campaigning

"The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn't interested in systemic change - if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash - or if it doesn't need to think strategically. But if you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy."

In fact, many organisations - especially faith-based organisations - already have a more powerful channel to organising than the Internet - face-to-face networks of closely-related people from where high-risk campaigning can be drawn. As Gladwell writes:

"what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham-discipline and strategy-were things that online social media cannot provide."

Internet only = easy expression + low impact

"[Using the Internet] is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability.

It 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."

Most of my work is about using digital tools for campaigning. However I have never been under the illusion that this is sufficient for that, more than my work can help accelerate and/or amplify the pressure for change. But a strategic approach to campaigning would involve leadership to organise supporters and direct a strong local groups. Media coverage and digital tools are useful additions to this, but not replacements. I see my contribution as complimenting and strengthening to face-to-face campaigning and providing a evidence-base check on over-enthusiasm with digital tools. I do love to play with them, but I don't confuse that with real impact.

What is troubling is that increasingly, in organisations' quests for lower costs, they are actually putting more emphasis on the digital tools and channels at the expense of the on-the-ground organising. While digital efforts have been dramatically underfunded for years, it is wasted investment if it doesn't compliment a strong leadership for local-groups.

Your perspective?

What did you think of Gladwell's article and/or of my comments to it? What do you think needs saying? (say it below!)

by Duane Raymond published Sep 28, 2010,
Chris Rose
Chris Rose

Thanks Duane. I confess I've only skimmed Gladwell's article but as some who started campaigning before the internet existed and who has worked on campaigns from high risk to almost none, I find this 'debate' (c-vism etc) a bit silly. At one level it is obvious that anything which is hard and difficult to do, registers more than something easy. The family who walked to your office and camped out on the doorstep until you'd see them, was always more intrusive and persuasive or hard to ignore than the father who simply wrote you a postcard. The channel or medium of activism is an issue but it's not rocket science. Two things strike me. First that use of social media in campaigns is more like alt politics than alt activism - eg 38Degrees. Second that social media are significant in terms of assets and resources - it makes campaigns easier to organise, and freer from the framing of 'the media', however much or little activism is involved. And you still need strategy - see also

  • Sep 28, 2010 04:29 pm
Andrew Davies
Andrew Davies

I strongly disagree with Gladwell on this one. I don't think he gets it.

He does a great job of painting a picture, and he raises some good provocative points. I think you've interpreted those points in a charitable way. I definately agree with what you say about keeping local groups and mobilizing via existing faith based networks, for example.

But he makes some big mistakes.

For example: Social media adds tools. It doesn't take away tools. And it doesn't create weak links out of strong ones. It can strengthen/create weak links. And I suspect it creates strong links in some cases.

He creates the a false contrast between the people who say "social media has changed everything" and his view that social media re-enforces the status quo.

The reality is more complicated, and more interesting, than his knee jerk backlash against Clay Shirky.

But the Atlantic has a more thoughtful rebuttal than I have...

I've never read any of Shirky's books, by the way. But I had a look at his site and twitter stream for a response. Didn't see one, but came accross this random tweet...

<blockquote>Revolution, in any field, means the old stuff people used to do starts failing, and most of the new stuff people try fails too.</blockquote>
8:34 PM Apr 21st

  • Sep 28, 2010 04:29 pm
Mark Pack
Mark Pack

What puzzles me about Malcolm Gladwell's piece is that while dismissing social networking he also (rightly) lauds the impact of late night drinking sessions in helping build those deep personal bonds which fuel brave protests.

And of course late night drinking sessions can often also be trivial, irrelevant, irreverent or unpleasant. Yet he doesn't seem to see that social networks too can fulfil both roles - and just because much may be trivial that doesn't mean they also can't play a major role in successful protest.

(I've expanded on this point in my own Gladwell post: )

  • Oct 05, 2010 07:54 am