Gladwell: Right for the Wrong Reasons

In his article “Small Change, Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” Malcolm Gladwell tells us that the digital activism of the present generation is not strong enough to endure the real-world challenges commonly faced in activist movements. He claims that because social networks do not provide the same support as interpersonal relationships formed between friends and cohorts, they must be weaker. He translates this perceived weakness into a lack of any capability — claiming that “in the outsized enthusiasm for social media… we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

He frames his perception of activism using the Greensboro Four, and their sit-in protests at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. He conjugates their social movement with the violence they encountered, true activism with real risk:

  • “Racial insubordination was routinely met with violence”
  • “The dangers were even clearer…”
  • “Activism that challenges the status quo…is not for the faint of heart”
  • “The civil-rights movement was high-risk activism” (Later in the piece)

He asks the question “What makes people capable of this kind of activism?” Or, to re-situate the question using his previous frame: What makes people take these illegal, violent, and life-threatening risks?

His answer? The participants’ “degree of personal connection to the… movement.”

Up to this point in his article, Gladwell has been fair in describing his own understanding of activism, and how it does or does not function in the digital age. Then he says (in reference to the personal connection needed for “real” activism) “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all.”

In 2010, that claim could have been true. Today, (literally, today) it is not.

In the last 24 hours, protests in Kiev, Ukraine have escalated out of hand. From BBC News:

“At least two people are reported to have died in clashes between police and protesters in the Ukrainian capital Kiev in a third night of violence.

Police stormed barricades built by anti-government protestors in the central square.

Mass demonstrations began in November after President Viktor Yanukovych shunned closer ties with the European Union.

The latest violence was triggered by the introduction of new laws passed last week that criminalise [sic] protests, as Daniel Sandford reports from Kiev.”

To sum up: there have been mass protests in Kiev since November. Last week, the government banned protests, and now more people are protesting, and in turn, dying

You might ask, “Thomas, what does that have to do with *digital* activism?”

And I would show you the introduction to an article published not 20 hours ago (Tuesday, January 21st) by Brian Merchant:

“ ‘Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.’

That’s a text message that thousands of Ukrainian protesters spontaneously received on their cell phones today, as a new law prohibiting public demonstrations went into effect. It was the regime’s police force, sending protesters the perfectly dystopian text message to accompany the newly minted, perfectly dystopian legislation. In fact, it’s downright Orwellian (and I hate that adjective, and only use it when absolutely necessary, I swear).

But that’s what this is: it’s technology employed to detect noncompliance, to hone in on dissent. The NY Times reports that the “Ukrainian government used telephone technology to pinpoint the locations of cell phones in use near clashes between riot police officers and protesters early on Tuesday.” Near. Using a cell phone near a clash lands you on the regime’s hit list” (Emphasis added).

Ukraine’s protests, now under cellphone surveillance. Image: Wikimedia

So, what does this all mean?

In defining activism during class, we agreed that activism was primarily about affecting change. We said that as such, there is a hierarchy of activism. We are able to define the success of activism by the change achieved. However, if we do not want to define success, if we simply want to define activism, what scale do we use?

According to Gladwell, we use Risk. Which takes us back to Kiev.

In class, we discussed the possibility that Gladwell’s thesis doesn’t fit present models. Digital activism is not solely online anymore — the internet, social media, and cell phones have become tools for activists who are marching, side by side, in the streets.

It has also become a tool of exploitation for those, who, seeking more power in a battle against the powerless can turn off the internet, turn off your cell service, or pinpoint your precise protesting location. Brian Merchant says “All of this puts lie to the lately-popular mythology that technology is inherently a liberating force—with the right hack, it can oppress just as easily.”

Although we can say Gladwell was wrong, as we have seen the power of digital activism in the physical world — maybe he was right.

Maybe there is a weakness in utilizing a tool so easily manipulated by the oppressor. Maybe we shouldn’t just “Tweet the change that we wish to see in the world.” Maybe the revolution won’t be tweeted.

Sometimes, it can’t be.


Works Cited

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Small Change, Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” The New Yorker. N.p., 4 Oct. 2010. Web. 19 Jan. 2014. <>.

Merchant, Brian. “Maybe the Most Orwellian Text Message a Government’s Ever Sent.” Motherboard. N.p., 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2014. <>.

“Ukraine: Police and Protesters Clash in Kiev.” BBC News. BBC, 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2014. <>.