Is Malcolm Gladwell right about social media and activism?

Over the last couple of months, few articles in the popular press have received more attention from social-media users than Malcolm Gladwell’s critical assessment of… social media.

Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” even provoked a response from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, whose post on the Atlantic‘s website rebutted Gladwell’s contention that meaningful social change cannot be effected by the “weak ties” engendered by social media like Facebook and Twitter.

In his article, Gladwell vividly describes the lunch-counter protests of the American South in the early 1960s, then takes issue with the notion that social media are today enabling more effective social activism than we might have seen 50 years ago:

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. […] With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns.

Gladwell doubts whether web-centered relationships can be strong enough to motivate activism on the order of the civil-rights movement:

The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism. […]

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. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

Gladwell says that real activism–whether in Greensboro or East Germany or Iran–requires deep real-world relationships and formal hierarchies to cement those relationships. “The things [Martin Luther] King needed in Birmingham–discipline and strategy–were things that online social media cannot provide.”

But is Gladwell telling the whole story? Stone quotes Hu Yong of Peking University, who describes social media tools like Twitter as “the coordinating platform for many campaigns asserting citizens’ rights.” And, Stone says, the contributions of social media in recent struggles in Kenya, Moldova, and Iran were real.

What do you think–is Gladwell right? Or is Stone?

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