Does social media help or hurt activism?

Author Malcolm Gladwell made waves this week with a New Yorker essay called “Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” in which he makes the case that activism movements are effortless and perhaps even meaningless in the world of social media.

We’ve been debating Gladwell’s thesis in the office the last few days. Here is part of the discussion from Colin Moffett and Victoria Baxter.

Colin: My biggest issue with Gladwell’s piece is that he assumes that somehow social media is something completely new. The technology itself is new and allows us to connect with people and share information farther and faster than ever before, but the activity of using the technology is nothing new. The technology doesn’t replace strong ties, hierarchical organizations or the mass media — in fact it helps fuel mass media by encouraging the spread of media content.

The technology also does not replace traditional advocacy and organizing. It is a tool, a highly effective tool in fact, that can help organizations reach large numbers of people in consistent and efficient ways. These loose ties, as Gladwell characterizes them, build on each other over sustained periods of time and create strong ties that are effective at helping people make the sacrifices needed in successful movements. He tries very hard to label social media as trite and ineffective and yearns for the old but in reality completely ignores that we aren’t talking about something that is altogether new.

What do you think, Victoria?

Victoria: My biggest issue was the suggestion that deep, committed high-risk advocacy is always the “better” advocacy. The story of young college students risking almost certain violence to sit at a lunch counter and start a revolution gives me chills. How could it not? But there are many different ways people can impact the world.

Advocacy – and I would also argue participation – is needed on lots of causes, especially those that happen half a world away. Quantifying Darfur advocacy by number of Facebook likes, divided by money raised misses the mark for me. It’s measuring the wrong thing.

I agree with Colin that Twitter doesn’t replace activism, strong ties or even the media. Instead of pro- or anti-Twitter debate, let’s have a more nuanced conversation that starts at encouraging and valuing participation. Participation is a much-needed starting point. Social networks help curate information, cutting through the ever-increasing clutter we face every day.

I’m reminded of the recent Nick Kristof article  and the recent Melinda Gates TEDxChange speech on marketing causes. We do ourselves a disservice by assuming that everyone knows what we know – or that everyone will automatically care. Social networks extend conversations beyond your immediate friends and provide an opportunity to start talking and start participating. That’s what happened in the dorm room in North Carolina A&T. It’s what’s happening online right now.

Colin: I completely agree. I think if there is one bit of warning we need to heed from Gladwell’s piece it is that organizations need to make an effort to create varying levels of action so that advocacy doesn’t devolve into a series of “likes” on Facebook. But again, this challenge isn’t new. Organizations have been under pressure for years to drive levels of participation from mailing lists and email lists. Large numbers of people will only give an email address or like something on Facebook and be done with it, but the same number of people as always can be compelled to become more heavily involved. And we will always have the special few who will make the personal sacrifices to sit at the lunch counter.

Victoria: Exactly! That’s exactly the nuance that is useful for advocates. The common “ladder of engagement” has a few missing rungs. Yes, we will need people to donate or send a letter to Congress. But why do so many campaigns stop there? Twitter makes it easy for friends to inform each other, talk about issues within networks and generally become more aware and engaged.

Here are some of the other reactions to Gladwell’s article that we’ve been reading:

A. Fine Blog: "Malcolm Gladwell Strikes out on Activism" | Sept. 28

Beth's Blog: "Social Media for Good and Evil" | Sept. 29

Yglesias: "Facebook and Freedom" | Sept. 30

Chronicle of Philanthropy: "Can Activism Be Fostered Through Social Networks?" | Sept. 30

New York Times: "Can Twitter Lead People to the Streets?" | Sept. 30

What are your thoughts on the power and limitations of social media and creative ways we can move people to take action?



Recent Authors

Jim Meszaros

Executive Vice President

Paul Massey

President, Powell Tate; Global Lead, Social Impact

Pam Jenkins

President, Global Public Affairs, Weber Shandwick

  • Powell Tate DC
  • 733 10th Street, NW
  • Washington, DC 20001
  • P 202 383 9700
  • F 202 383 0079
  • Powell Tate BEIJING
  • Unit 706-707
  • 7/F, China Life Tower
  • 16 Chaoyangmen Wai Da Jie
  • Beijing 100020, China
  • 86 10 8580 4824/34
  • Powell Tate Sydney
  • Royal Naval House
  • 32 Grosvenor Street
  • The Rocks, Sydney NSW 2000
  • Australia
  • 61 2 9994 4490

Home  •  About Us  •  What We Do  •  Our Work

Insights  •  Careers  •  Contact Us