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Is Digital Activism an Effective Medium for Change?
Malcolm Gladwell says social media can't effect real-life change, Facebook and Twitter devotees think otherwise.
"The revolution will not be tweeted" read the provocative standfirst on a piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker last week, questioning the value of Twitter and Facebook as a tool for effecting real change.
In the article, Gladwell questioned claims that social media had galvanised recent protests in Iran and Moldova and argued that this kind of armchair activism can't change the world. Referencing the American civil rights movement, Gladwell said activism was tied to relationships and shared experiences – a person is more likely to protest if they know a friend will be by their side – rather than the number of people joining a Facebook campaign.
Gladwell's comments are not wholly new. Activists and NGOs have been debating whether "clicktivism" is ruining leftist activism for some time.
So what are your thoughts? Would the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005, for example, have galvanised so many people to march around Edinburgh if it had been conducted by Twitter? Is digital engagement the future of activism, and what can supposedly short digital-attention spans offer to the slow, complex process of development?
We've rounded up a few comments in the blogosphere to start you off.
Sarah Ditum writes of the value in social media. "Yes, social media gives a lot more people the opportunity to be telescopic philanthropists, sitting at our desks plugging our email addresses into petition forms. But that's purely a function of campaigns being able to reach a lot of people – and useless as these pixel-level gestures may be at bringing about the object they're supposedly aimed at, they do at least demonstrate and encourage a movement of attitudes leading to long-term change."
Lina Srivastava, meanwhile, believes that, by arguing the merits of Twitter activism, "we're all now starting to miss the point. The way a campaign engages empathisers, influencers and activists - whether based on what Gladwell notes as weak or strong ties - is really more a matter of strategy: issue identification, context, methodology, desired action, outcome, etc. The medium is not the message here."
Alex Madrigal adds: "I think we can read Gladwell's piece as a fairly specific indictment of the current uses of the current generation of tools. Truth is, very few major activism projects succeed through Facebook or Twitter. Shirky would totally agree with that, I think. And in cases where they seem to have helped, it's quite difficult to quantify how much, if at all."
Juliette at Greenpeace UK writes: "Weak ties can become stronger. I first got involved with Greenpeace reading a blog entry in passing. Then I wrote a comment. Then I joined an online forum, and became a volunteer in a local group, collecting signatures in the street, and convincing people in the street to give us the five euro cents that were left in their wallets. I became an online volunteer for Greenpeace International, then got an internship, and then got a job. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to work for good like I do every day. And I don't forget that what hooked me in all this is a simple blog entry, five years ago."
Luke Allnut adds that our preoccupation with "overthrowing governments and regime change" risks "overlooking the incremental benefits that digital activism can bring every day. (A hazing video in Armenia goes viral and leads to an officer's conviction. A Russian blogger's harrowing account of the state of a regional hospital trickles up into state-run media.) No, it's not regime change, but it's undoubtedly making a difference".