Small Change

At the end of September, Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and author of The Tipping Point and Blink, published a piece, Small Change: Why the Revolution Will not be Tweeted, in that magazine making the argument that social media tools like Facebook and Twitter were overhyped as agents of social change at best and at worst, completely useless in helping move the kind of high-risk actions that are strong enough to bring down governments and change cultures. Using the wave of sit-ins that swept the South in 1960 during the Civil Rights Movement as his prime example, Gladwell rests his thesis upon two points.
First, movements and high-risk socio-political actions are carried out by people who have strong ties to each other or a strong level of commitment to the movement itself and the actions they undertake serve to reinforce those ties. Second, the momentum and strategic direction of movements requires some level of hierarchy and organization so the energy has a chance of winning the kinds of change the participants want to see. Given these two requisites for large-scale social change, he says, there is no way that social networks will actually be able to play a role in amplifying or directing social change.
This essay engendered a firestorm of criticism from activists who use Facebook and Twitter as part of their daily work in organizing for progressive social change in the America. Some of it was the usual triumphalism of the tech geek. Some of it was an interesting mix of “old guys don’t get it” and “it’s not the 60’s anymore so don’t expect change to look like it did 50 years ago”. None of these responses dealt at all with the main points of his thesis, strong-ties and the primacy of closed, hierarchical organizations.

However, an increasing number of responses have tackled those issues and done it from the point of view of activists and organizers working hard to change the public policy climate of the United States. These responses range from top-level examination of how Gladwell positions his understanding of Twitter and Facebook within his own thesis on ties and hierarchy to nuts-and-bolts examinations of how modern progressive organizations are fighting for and winning progressive change using organizing methodologies that deploy Twitter and Facebook as tools in a tactical arsenal that increasingly includes a dizzying array of options.

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