My Thoughts on Gladwell’s Article in The New Yorker

Malcom Gladwell’s article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted,” was forwarded to me by at least half-a-dozen colleagues after it was published just three days ago. I have purposefully not read other people’s responses to this piece so that I could write down my own observations before being swayed by those of others.

So what do I think? Finally, someone else is calling attention to the importance of  civil resistance (strategic nonviolent action) in the context of new digital technologies! This intersection is what I’m most excited about when it comes to the new tools of social media.

Gladwell uses the example of the civil rights movement, which in his own words was an example of “high-risk activism” and “also crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline.” Indeed, “the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion.” Gladwell is spot on, strategic nonviolent action is nonviolent guerrilla warfare. If I’m not trained in civil resistance, then I can still use all the technology I want but the tools won’t necessarily make me more effective or make up for my lack of skills in nonviolent warfare.

But most tend to completely skip over the rich lessons learned from the long history of nonviolent action because they are more excited about the tools. As Gladwell notes, “Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.” But these tools were never used in the vast majority of protests in the history of the world. See this piece by the Global Post on “How to Run a Protest without Twitter.”

I specifically blogged about this issue two years ago in a post entitled: “Digital Resistance: Between Digital Activism and Civil Resistance.” Some excerpts:

The future of political activism in repressive environments belongs to those who mix and master both digital activism and civil resistance—digital resistance. Digital activism brings technical expertise to the table while civil resistance offers rich tactical and strategic competence.

At the same time, however, the practice of digital activism is surprisingly devoid of tactical and strategic know-how. In turn, the field of civil resistance lags far behind in its command of new information technologies for strategic nonviolent action.

In this blog post, I called attention to the work of Gene Sharp who is considered by many as one of the most influential scholars in the field of civil resistance. His book, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, is a must-read for anyone interested in strategic nonviolent action. I argue that digital activism needs  much stronger grounding in the tactics and strategies of nonviolent civil resistance. That is why I followed up with a second blog post in 2008 on “Gene Sharp, Civil Resistance and Technology.”

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene identifies 198 methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion. The majority of these can be amplified by modern communication technologies. What  follows is therefore only a subset of 12 tactics linked to applied examples of modern technologies. I very much welcome feedback on this initial list, as I’d like to formulate a more complete taxonomy of digital resistance and match the tactic-technologies with real-world examples from DigiActive’s website.

So when starting from the principles, strategies and tactics of civil resistance, I do think that the tools of social media can act as multiplier effect in a nonviolent campaign. Gladwell rightly likens the civil rights movement to a military campaign. And communication is central to the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns. In fact, some of the most successful nonviolent campaigns detailed in numerous case studies turned on the ability to get accurate, timely information. The literature on military history also demonstrates that “success in counter-guerrilla operations almost invariably goes to the force which receives timely information.”

Effective civil resistance requires sound intelligence and strategic estimates. But Gladwell only dwells on the role of new technologies in the context of recruitment. He doesn’t consider the effect of new tools on information sharing and information cascades. And if Gladwell had the time to read more of McAdam’s work, he’d have come across other relevant causal mechanisms described in the literature that are relevant to the discussion.

I plan to follow up with a second post based on Gladwell’s piece to address his points on strong versus weak ties and hierarchies versus networks.

12 responses to “My Thoughts on Gladwell’s Article in The New Yorker

  1. Just a few more means of “non-violent” technical protest:

    Comment attacks. Expressing strong opposition to blogs and posts by a coordinated team that overwhelms the forum. (China-Tibet)

    Defacement of websites (Georgia)

    Acquisition and leaking of incriminating documents (Wikileaks)

    Poll flooding. Use social networks to get the vote out for on-line polls. (GreenPeace Mr. Splashy Pants)

  2. While I was more critical of Gladwell than you were, I very much like your idea of appending digital tools to Gene Sharps list of tactics. If you decide to continue with this project, let me know.

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  5. The point cannot be made strongly enough; technology changes the world but strategic thinking and organised tactical action is what provides leadership. Leaders in turn know how to capitalise on the technology of the day to seize the initiative. The enormous leverage of the social media is unparalleled both for gaining the advantage but also for loosing it. Leaders of today must therefore more than ever be extra vigilant about the strategic integrity and the dynamics of the means they use to execute strategy.

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  11. dear Patrick

    you wrote: “and if Gladwell had the time to read more of McAdam’s work, he’d have come across other relevant causal mechanisms…”. I re-read your post but couldn’t find any further information about this McAdam you’re referring to: would you have his complete name so I can loop up his writings? I’d be interested to find out more about it.

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