By 2019, the idea of “hashtag activism” has become commonplace. The #MeToo movement spread like wildfire from the humble beginnings of social media posts from women telling the world that they had also experienced sexual harassment. Way back in 2010, many commentators labeled the Arab Spring protests a Twitter revolution, noting how the relatively young messaging platform enabled the rapid mobilization of fed-up citizens.
But there’s a big difference between updating your Facebook status and marching in the streets. That’s the issue Malcolm Gladwell takes up in his 2010 New Yorker article “Small Change.” Gladwell argues that real activism, the sort that characterizes the 1960s civil rights movement, entails serious risk and requires strong personal ties. Social media, on the other hand, is based on “weak ties.” He contrasts the 1960 Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins begun by African American college students in Greensboro, NC, –protests organized through close personal relationships, not social media– with modern-day crowdsourcing victories often hailed as examples of social media organizing. The global search for a bone marrow donor and a snowballing online vigilante effort to recover a lost smartphone, inspiring as they may be, seem trivial in comparison, which is exactly Gladwell’s point. Social media networks may be good for raising awareness, but they lack the strong ties and the purposeful hierarchical structure Gladwell says are needed for “activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—[which] is not for the faint of heart.”
Media Credit: Hillsboro Television, “Honoring Woolworth Sit-In Woolworth Protestors” 9 March 2018. via Archive.org
Is Gladwell drawing an artificially stark contrast between online and offline activism? Have more recent campaigns like Black Lives Matter or the March for Our Lives complicated this distinction? Or, if we accept his general distinction, can social media communication ever forge strong ties?
Good to note:
- Greensboro, NC, 1960 Woolworth sit-ins
- Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, 1964
- Strong ties vs. weak ties
- Shallow participation of online Darfur charities/campaigns
- Hierarchical organization vs. network structure
- Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody