My Thoughts on Gladwell’s Article in The New Yorker, Part 2

The first part of my response to Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker explained why principles, strategies and tactics of civil resistance are important for the future of digital activism. In this second part, I address Gladwell’s arguments on high vs. low risk activism, weak vs. strong ties and hierarchies vs networks.

According to Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, the civil rights movement represented “high-risk activism” which requires “strong-ties”. By strong-ties, McAdam refers to the bonds of friendship, family, relationships, etc. These social ties appear to be a necessary condition for recruiting and catalyzing a movement engaged in high-risk activism. “What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement.” Indeed, you’re more likely to join a rally if your close friends are going. “One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization.”

In contrast, Gladwell argues that “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties.” The problem with evangelists of social media, according to him, is that they “believe a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend.” In addition, while “social networks are effective at increasing participation,” they only do so by “lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.”

Gladwell then adds the “networks versus hierarchies argument” to further his point. Strategic nonviolent action requires organization, planning and authority structures. Social media, on the other hand, “are not about this kind of hierarchical organization.” This is a “crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant,” says Gladwell.

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.

But it 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.

I tried to summarize Gladwell’s arguments in the diagram below and would be interested in feedback. The red arrow represents high-risk activism and the green low-risk. As per his argument, high-risk activism requires both strong ties and high levels of organization.

Gladwell makes a compelling case and one that I largely agree with, but not completely. Would the four colleague students who instigated the first wave of protests in North Carolina during the Winter of 1960 have turned down the opportunity to use email, SMS, Facebook or Twitter? Would their use of social media tools have caused their movement to fail? Would the strong-ties these students shared be diluted as a result of also being friends on Facebook? I personally doubt it, they would still have shown up at Woolworth.

Gladwell is right to distinguish between high-risk and low-risk activism but this is a false dichotomy. Not everyone in society faces the same kinds of risks, nor do they face the same levels of risk all the time. Total war in the Clausewitzian sense only holds true for thought-experiments. Indeed, a recent study study found that, “The average percentage of area covered by civil war […] is approximately 48%, but the average amount of territory with repeated fighting is considerably smaller at 15%.”

So if communities face a range of risks that span from low to high, then one would want to leverage both strong-ties and weak-ties along with appropriate organizational forms, offline tactics and social media tools. This means that both networks and hierarchies are needed; and that neither organizational form need remain static over time since risks are not static. Indeed, an effective social movement needs organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and networks that promote resilience and adaptability. Both are absolutely key to the practice of strategic nonviolent action.

There’s no doubt that the civil rights movement represented high-risk activism. Does this mean that the same methods used in the 1960s would work for high-risk activism in a country like Egypt, North Korea or even in Cambodia during the genocide that killed an estimated 1.2 to 1.7 million people?  Can the US media of the 1960s really be compared to North Korean media? As my colleague David Faris noted in a recent email exchange on Gladwell’s article,

The initial sit-ins may have been launched by a small group of people impervious to the danger, but they grew to 70,000 not only because close friends were doing it, but also because people saw acquaintances protesting, and decided that the level of risk required to participate had fallen. This is important because in the U.S. in 1960 the media were willing to report on these events. This is not the case across the authoritarian world, where news relayed by text and Twitter may be the only reliable source of information apart from your immediate circle of friends. By relaying information about the preferences of your weak ties, social media provide individuals with more accurate pictures of the preference-sets of other members of their community.

New social media tools don’t dictate the organizational form of the movement, they simply create more options. So a hierarchical organization can very well use new media platforms to conduct their own highly centralized movement. It’s just like the Ushahidi platform, it is a tool, not a methodology. If a group of protesters don’t put any serious time into planning their campaigns, identifying key strategies and tactics, training, drafting contingency measures, fund raising, etc., then the presence of social media tools will not explain why their protests are ineffective. It would be too easy of an excuse.

Ushahidi is only 10% of the solution

Here’s a graphic designed by my colleague Chris Blow that shows why technology is at most 10% of the solution (the context is Ushahidi but the principle applies more broadly). If a movement doesn’t take on “all the other stuff”, then it doesn’t matter whether members are part of a network, a centralized organization, have weak-ties or strong-ties, or whether they are in a high-risk or low-risk environment. They are unlikely to succeed.

8 responses to “My Thoughts on Gladwell’s Article in The New Yorker, Part 2

  1. It’s curious that this debate sounds rather like the “Web is Dead” see
    there we have hierarchical companies with strong ties competing with social networking with weak ties. They both use apps on the web just one group knows each other in the flesh and the other does not, one is well organised and they know that people who don’t play the game will be punished, so there is some level of trust. The civil rights movement is much more like a company. You do need strong ties to succeed with Ushahidi. But there is no reason why the core shouldn’t be like a company with strong ties whilst the perihery is a weak tied web networked group. The company behind Facebook have strong ties whilst the users have weak ties.

  2. Hi Patrick, I agree and I actually wrote something similar to this. It seems Gladwell misses the point about social media tools being *tools*, the important thing is the context.

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  4. Facebook, when used as a tool for communicating information to an exclusive audience, is just as good as email or radio. It can be intercepted by a powerful foe. Gladwell’s article points out various shortcomings in various situations; that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily all bad. Facebook and Twitter are not ideal for mass, peaceful movements because of their exclusivity features. And they’re not ideal ways of communicating between people who are members of an exclusive organization engaging in “high-risk” activity, because the messages can be intercepted. For small, exclusive, revolutionary organizations, that isn’t so much of a problem, because they can use the internet the same way they use radio-waves: in code.

    But for the very specific examples of the Freedom Summer movement in Mississippi, or the Montgomery Bus Boycotts:

    …people had organizations that were contained in space, making them not have to rely on long-distance communication as much, negating much of their need for the the internet or radio.

    …these organizations of people were small enough that they were exclusive, which is necessary in terms of defeating spies and counter-intelligence, things encountered by most people engaging in “high-risk” action; yet they were engaging in public acts, which makes their public statements much better suited for the blogosphere than facebook, twitter, or gmail.

    If these groups had been around now, they probably would have’ve utilized facebook and twitter to their fullest extent. But these two tools are not only not game-changers in any significant way, they actually are built to keep masses of people out of communiques, but yet are not so secure that they can replace the need for organizations carrying out high risk acts to having resort to codes, and an extensive personal communication network that is filled with people who are so dedicated to the cause that they keep information away from the enemy even in most cases of torture.

  5. So I finally took the time to read Gladwell’s full New Yorker article, thank you Patrick for pointing that out… but I have to say that I’m a little confused by the end. What is Gladwell really trying to say? Is he actually suggesting that social networks, or even networks as a structure are not conducive to toppling oppressive regimes, or effecting social change? Can someone – even someone as well respected as Gladwell – really make a claim like that?

    Perhaps I completely misunderstood his position, but it would seem not with statements like “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.”

    And ending his article with a rather smug sounding retort to Clay Shirky’s book “Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, ‘What happens next?’—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución”

    I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s work – Blink and The Tipping Point are seminal books in my mind- they were the first links in a long chain of readings that deeply altered my understanding of the world. And I do agree with Gladwell’s calling-out certain premature and perhaps even hyperbolic statements by certain individuals about social media.

    But honestly, what an old fuddy-duddy you have become Mr. Gladwell that you predicate your position on such an uninspired and altogether uninspiring claim, that will most likely not withstand the test of time. I also find it troubling that you couldn’t imagine a scenario different than the ones you’ve read about. Shame-shame for picking on the innovators.

    Yes-yes Mr. Gladwell, you’ve pieced together a compelling narrative with some very significant historical examples, but I could do the same with respect to the long history of humanity without powered manned flight, that is of course right up to Kitty Hawk December 1903 when my position would start to become a little shaky… but still, based on what I had seen for the last few thousand years I might argue that ‘it’ll never have a significant impact on society, and certainly never unseat boats and trains’ – this is pretty much what you sound like Mr. Gladwell.

    The future of digital activism probably won’t adhere to any of the dichotomies Gladwell outlines- nor could I hope to predict with any accuracy what a specific example might look like. But I would be willing to venture that it will be some amalgamation of existing technologies, yet unseen technologies, distributed networks of small hierarchies, trust relationships, and risk mitigation strategies.

    Yes-yes, we also get weak ties and strong ties are, among other things, a measurement of degrees of trust, and yes, building high degrees of trust is inherently a tacit experience, one that is inherently difficult to do virtually through Facebook. That said, we’re really not talking only about trust, we’re also talking about mind share, and the unprecedented ability to connect with many people cheaply and quickly so that the dozen or so kindred spirits can find each other and self-select into a group, who will then no-doubt create closer ties… but it’s not the ties themselves that got those people to connect. And just because that’s been the case historically doesn’t mean much, except that it will most likely change given enough time.

    Social networks like Facebook are only one manifestation of how a network structure can be implemented by humans to augment our ‘small hierarchy’ optimized brains. But I think it’s important to not to be blinded by the things we can see right now – imagine it’s the year 1900 and powered manned flight is only a figment of the imagination, until 36 months later it’ll be proven by a couple of unknown entrepreneurs… but even then it must have seemed like a novelty.

    So will Facebook alone topple oppressive regimes and end genocide? Probably not as it exists right now, but it, or a social network predecessor, might help some concerned people find each other, who then organize into a small yet effective hierarchy, that create a technology platform that allows other people in desperate situations to have a voice on an international stage, which may one day cause the UN to intervene in time to prevent the next Rwanda.

    I think there are 747’s on the way Mr. Gladwell – it’s Kitty Hawk 1903 and we can’t see them from where we’re standing in history but I’m pretty confident they are on the way.

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