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Digital vs. Real Activism: Will the Revolution be tweeted??

20 Oct

In his article Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be tweeted, famed author and writer for the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell argues that digital activism cannot replace traditional activism. He argues that tools of social media such as Twitter and Facebook cannot replace real world human–to-human connections that form the basis for and sustain real social movements.

Gladwell calls these friendships, alliances and allegiances in the real world ‘strong ties’, that create the commitment and sacrifice necessary for ‘high-risk activism.’ Electronically mediated social connections are distant relations that have no real capability to galvanize people towards change. He adds that real, ‘high-risk activism’ requires strategic planning, organized leadership and a hierarchical structure, in order to ensure discipline and avoid conflict and error.

In ‘A mild defense of Social Media’, Daniel W. Drezner disagrees with Gladwell that digital social networks do away with strong ties or lack hierarchy. He says, “Networks eliminate neither hierarchical power nor strong ties — they’re simply expressed in different ways. Actors in central nodes, with lots of dynamic density among other actors, can command both power and discipline. Not all networks will look like this, but the ones successful at fomenting change will likely resemble it. To put it more precisely: social networks lower the transactions costs for creating both weak ties and strong ties, loose collaborations and more tightly integrated social movements.”

In his article Gladwell states, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life … The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous 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.”

According to David Pell of Forbes blog, for many of us “our online world is an extension of our offline lives,” and disagrees with Gladwell that, the use of modern channels to communicate and the ‘activism-driving trait’ are somehow mutually exclusive. He says it is foolish to separate online and offline relationships and that while “activism does not require technology, technology certainly doesn’t stop activism.”

In response to Gladwell’s piece, Jillian C. York believes that the very distinction between traditional and digital activism altogether is unnecessary, for digital tools are “complementary to traditional activism.” Furthermore, strong ties or not, expressions of traditional activism such as marches often involve “the outliers”, folks who care but only enough to participate that one time. She claims that while Gladwell might argue that one time involvement in the real world also poses a high risk for the parties involved, “digital involvement in repressive societies can present similar risks, with both the most serious and sometimes the less outspoken being arrested.”

Leo Mirani of the Guardian says that if “real activism” is defined as taking to the streets and protesting, then Gladwell is right to say that we have indeed forgotten what “real activism” is. However, in citing the spread of reports of human rights abuses to mainstream media in India through the help of social media as an example, he states, “if activism extends to changing the minds of people, to making populations aware of what their governments are doing in their name, to influencing opinion across the world, then the revolution will be indeed be tweeted.”

Ultimately whether you agree with Gladwell that social media is an inadequate forum for ‘high-risk’ activism or whether you believe it is the new face of revolution, I think there is something that most of us can agree on… The social media-scape is still evolving and until we understand it better, sites such as twitter and facebook are an effective tool to share and spread a message.

Mohita