Do You Hear The People Sing?
The colors of the world are changing day by day
We are living in the age of information. Through social media we are constantly bombarded with news from all across the globe. Some say that we are experiencing a revolution, but Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “Small Change,” does not believe that is the case.
In his article, Gladwell described physical and online activism and argued that high-risk activism requires strong ties that can only be found in the physical world. While this trend has been seen in the past, it doesn't mean that the internet should be written off completely when it comes to big movements. Communication has changed dramatically in the past few years. Marshall Poe wrote about the evolution of online communities and the communication of information in his article “The Hive.” Poe’s views on online communities challenges that of Gladwell.
Through analyzing purpose, communities, leadership, and authority both online and offline, we can develop an understanding of the past and plan for the future. We need to adapt activism techniques to reach, inform, and organize people through this magnificent tool.
Activism has been a vital part of history, and without it there would be no change in the world. Before the internet, people were connected by other means. Gladwell touched upon this in relation to the civil rights movement in his article stating, “what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?”
While this is in fact true, it is important to realize the world is adapting. There wasn't a need for social media during the civil rights movement because people organized themselves in a different way. As Gladwell said, back then everyone could be found in the church. Nowadays, this isn't always the case. We have grown as a society to congregate online, and so, we must bring awareness and information to the people in this new forum.
In his article, Marshall Poe described how it was not possible for a network system to work productively before the internet.
He went on in his article to discuss the benefits of the internet and how it allows communities to organize. Access to information is increasing and with it comes transparency and accountability. If the internet can spread information and ideas, we must adjust our activism techniques and use these tools to our advantage.
To be able to use these online tools effectively, we first need to know what activism is. Gladwell argued in his article that there are two types of activism: high-risk and low-risk.
“[Social media] doesn't involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgement and praise,” (Gladwell).
By focusing on the idealistic image of high-risk, “military precision” activism, Gladwell overlooks the bigger picture of how we can use online tools to enhance techniques and engage a global audience. Gladwell is committing to the belief that anything less than militaristic, high-risk activism is “more of the same” and not of much importance.
If low-risk activism brings change, why write it off?
Shouldn't all advances toward a better future be encouraged?
Incremental development works online for websites like Wikipedia due to the “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” model where a large enough volume of people aiding a cause can eventually solve any problem. Why can’t this also be true in the physical world? In this world, we have infinite issues to resolve. A single focused, top-down, militaristic approach can only address one problem, using many valuable resources and time.
We have 26% of the eyes of the world held at attention behind a screen There must be a way to harness that power.
In his article, Gladwell continuously analyzed the differences between hierarchy and networks in regard to activism.
“no one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error,” (Gladwell).
Whereas Gladwell provides ample evidence that central leadership is needed for activism, Poe’s article on the organization of Wikipedia convinces me that there is power in community.
“Wikipedia’s communal regime permits growth plus organization and improvement. The result of this difference is there for all to see: much of the Internet is a chaotic mess and therefore useless, whereas Wikipedia is well ordered and hence very useful,” (Poe).
Wikipedia shows how a strong community can make all the difference between chaos and order.
Here we see a common theme emerging: relationships. Gladwell argued that high-risk, hierarchical activism works due to strong-ties. He argued that a number of successful movements were born from this phenomenon where “the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest.” He went on to explain how the weak-ties of social media could never meet the level of devotion to a cause as seen in the civil-rights movement.
Gladwell is right to say that the strong-ties of the civil-rights movement played a huge role in its success, but there is flaw in his argument being that his reasoning throughout his article is very black and white — all or nothing. He fails to recognize that all strong bonds begin as weak ties.
As Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, said in her 2013 TED talk on adult development, “new things come from what are called our weak ties…and weak ties are how you get yourself into that group… It’s not cheating. It’s the science of how information spreads,” (Jay).
Weak ties should be embraced and over time those weak ties can flourish into strong bonds. If we want to spread information, there is no better way than on the internet because of these weak ties. There is nothing here that should be looked down upon — it’s not cheating, it’s science.
The Song of Angry Men
There have been numerous movements in the past few years, showing that it is possible to use social media effectively for activism. Gladwell’s article, published October 2010, is outdated being that the internet moves exponentially fast.
Since the publication of “Small Change”, social media has aided movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, and the Gezi Park protests. Social media activism isn’t limited to the cloud — it’s moved to the streets.
A specific community online that is known for activism is Anonymous. Anonymous is a loose network of online activists and “hacktivists”, individuals who break into computer systems with political or social motivation.
The anonymous, ubiquitous collective has no centralized command structure, yet the group has managed to organize for a large number of causes. Gladwell described loose networks stating, “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.”
Gladwell described what makes communities like anonymous thrive online. There is no central authority, meaning the activists can split their forces and fight for a number of causes all at once. While Gladwell believes decisions are made through consensus, Anonymous functions independently, rallying individuals together in a unique way. Individuals can fight for the cause as they see fit, not limited by the leaders of the movement. The ties that bind people are loose, but you can’t underestimate the power of the bonds between a person and core beliefs — it is not a weak one.
Here we have a new recipe for activism, and it has the potential to change the world.
Are we in the midst of a revolution? Although Gladwell believes “we are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro,” current events show a different story. The world is evolving and we must move with it. There have been instances in the past few years where social media was successfully used to facilitate famous, high-risk movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring.
Anyone who says that activism is dying out needs to crawl out from under their rock and realize that the world online is not only a valuable tool, but it is also a place of congregation. The communication of information online is developing the weak ties we need to build movements.
Do you hear the people sing?
They are singing louder than ever on forums, youtube, facebook, and twitter. We must come together here, online, and fight for the future.