Malcolm Gladwell’s recent The New Yorker article Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted argues we have lost a true sense of activism through a hyper-networked digital world. Thanks to my friend Kim who recommended this article.
Gladwell doesn’t really provide an alternative. That is not his point. Instead he is arguing against the assumption that a world with greater participation through social media such as Facebook will not bring the same radical flavour in activism in the ‘rights-based’ movements of past decades.
Is Gladwell onto something?… and why does this matter? Does this have anything to do with the reduction of extreme poverty?
Gladwell argues that hierarchy and organisation, not just an extensive network enabling participation, is needed to effective activism to bring about change. He favours the term “…with military precision” as though the military has somehow magically already secured all of the right answers. Having spent close to two decades in the Australian Army myself, I am hesitant to just accept that statement but I do understand the point he is making.
Have advocacy organisations lost the art and ability to be true activists? Has this inadvertently become a PR and brand war instead? Gladwell might say that it misses the mark because none of it is ‘new’, for all of the glossy brochures distributed and talks we attend, all the websites we click onto and the campaigns that engage our attention.
He uses an example illustrated earlier by Clay Shirky about the recovery of a mobile phone lost in a taxi in New York (read the article). Gladwell highlights the lameness of modern day faux-activism:
What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.
How do we know we are really making a difference? A good question to ask.