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Gladwell’s (and My) Thoughts on Revolution

September 27, 2010

Gladwell's a cool guy (H/T: Tommy Craggs & Deadspin for the pic)

If you know me (or are at least marginally familiar with me), then you know I like to talk about 3 things:

1) The NBA

2) The Internet/technology

3) Iran

In June of 2009, I joined Twitter. I’d been thinking about joining for a while, but I resisted because I thought it would dangerously enhance my Internet addiction (it did). Since graduating from college, I’d been getting more into reading about sports online (particularly the NBA), and a lot of the bloggers and columnists I liked to read were on Twitter. As were some non-sports news journalists I liked. But at the time, I was relying on my Google Reader, and I thought that was just fine for me. Now that I’m actually on Twitter, I spend a lot of time reading/talking about sports and politics. A lot of time. Probably too much time. But I digress.

But yeah, back to June 2009. Big month last year. Lots of famous people died. Farah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Billy “OxyClean” Mays. And lots of not-so famous people died, too. A bunch of those not-so famous people were some ordinary Iranians. Well I guess that’s not true: 1) they weren’t so ordinary and 2) they became pretty famous (especially a girl named Neda). These people, mostly university students, poured into the streets to protest the rigged re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. One of the ways information about the protests was getting out of Iran was through Twitter and the #iranelection hashtag. You all probably know this already, because that’s probably how you heard about it.

When I saw all this stuff happening (reading articles, reading blog posts, watching videos), I thought to myself, “If my family wasn’t lucky enough to move to the US back in the late 1980s, I would be one of those kids on the street, getting beat up and shot at. There’s got to be something I can do to help them.” I mean, I still have family back there: there had to be something I could do to try to make sure they’d be OK (in the short run and the long run).

So that’s when I joined Twitter. I knew at the time it wasn’t much, but it was something. I checked the news every hour. I checked #iranelection every minute. If I saw something that I thought people should know about, then I re-tweeted it. At the time, I had my Facebook account linked to my Twitter account. My Facebook network was much larger, and I thought it if I wanted people to know what was going on, I should throw some information at people who could match my face to that cause.

Malcolm Gladwell just penned a piece for The New Yorker called “Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted.” You should definitely read it; Gladwell is a really intelligent person, and a fantastic writer. But I think he’s missing some big points in his article.

He doesn’t outright use this term, but Gladwell alludes to Facebook and Twitter “slacktivists.” These are people who see minimal cost in their participation in a social movement and feel validated that their involvement (however miniscule) is serving some greater purpose, or maybe just alleviating their guilty consciences.

While he’s correct in saying that the Iranian protests weren’t dependent on Twitter (thus even with Twitter’s help did not become fruitful), he doesn’t point out that Twitter did make a difference. Iran is arguably one of the most enigmatic and isolated countries in the world. Yet for the past year, MILLIONS of non-Iranians have been made aware of the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. Is this worthless? After 30+ years of mischaracterization and Orientalist rhetoric being thrown against a monolithic Iranian identity, people from all over the earth learned that Iranians are young, intelligent, powerful, tech-savvy, and hate their crooked government as much as the rest of the world does.

Gladwell also doesn’t touch on the fact that another form of social media–text messaging–DID have a huge role in the campaign. While people in other countries weren’t being constantly getting text message updates like they were with Tweets, Iranian activists in Iran used this technology to organize rallies, slogans, and marches. They used it to tell each other where NOT to go. They used it to help each other. The government did what it could to bog down the communication networks (both the Internet and SMS), but people both inside and outside Iran made strides in creating work-arounds to the blocks, like secure server space outside of Iran for use in protest-organizing message boards.

Many scholars have previously touched on themes of the role of civil society in fomenting change in authoritarian societies through these expansive networks. Keck’s and Sikkink’s (1998) seminal work Activists Beyond Borders goes into great detail about the ability for interconnected civil societies in domestic and expatriate/diasporic communities to create visible political action. The Boomerang Pattern, as they deem it, occurs when political action fails in a domestic sphere, but it gains new life in a transnational civil society network. The civil society in the domestic sphere relays the information to its partners in the expatriate community, and that expatriate community uses its influence to stress its host government to apply pressure to the original “offending” authoritarian government. In this situation, technology–like Twitter and Facebook–can facilitate communication within that network, thus increasing the speed with which domestic political actors can circumvent traditional domestic mechanisms of protest and bring about change from the outside. I don’t think Gladwell gives this aspect of social media enough credit.

I also think Gladwell’s comparison to the protest movements in Iran and Moldova to the American Civil Rights Movement, while thought-provoking, is problematic in one crucial, yet overlooked, assumption: While both eras exhibited these people actors fighting for a just cause, the United States was, and continues to be, a functioning democracy. There exists popular and legal recourse for injustice. Moldova and Iran can claim all the democratic structures they want: their governments are cronyist and corrupt.  They don’t have the luxury of the government listening to them at any point down the road.

A final issue I have with the piece is the final anecdote about the lost “Sidekick” (from Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody). Aside from the fact the contrast belittles the efficacy of transnational sociopolitical networks, the juxtaposition of the “successful” retrieval of the person’s lost cellphone screams “racial undertones.” I just thought that was disturbing to have in the same article where the bulk of it was spent discussing the harrowing trials of Blacks in the 1960s.

Since last June, a lot of scholars and writers have discussed the effectiveness of electronic social media and revolutionary activity. Gladwell is another in the “it’s not going to get the job done” camp. I have no doubt that they’ve all done extensive research on the topic before coming to their conclusions. And really, there was no revolution in Iran. Therefore, it failed to help. Right? Well, according to this “slacktivist,” if you think social media was worthless, you weren’t paying attention.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    September 27, 2010 1:51 pm

    I like the paragraph that begins: “Many scholars have previously touched on themes of the role of civil society in fomenting change in authoritarian societies through these expansive networks…”

    It’s a good point.
    An example of that phenomenon is the discussion of the Armenian genocide and how Armenian ex-pats in the US have become an influential enough network to shift our sovereign state into verbal fisticuffs with Turkey over that ‘nasty little incident’. They’ve successfully created movements in EU nations that have come to the same effect. (While I think this is ultimately counterproductive to the EU’s desperate need for Turkey to join the EU, the point remains the same that the ex-pat networks can be surprisingly powerful).

  2. September 27, 2010 5:21 pm

    Not sure if I’d go so far as to describe texting as “social media”. Ostensibly it is, in a sort of roundabout way – but I think calling it as such is kind of over-reaching. Is then instant messaging “social media”? I don’t know, but I think that a lot of “social media gurus” are very quick to define anything moderately successful as social media just to lay claim to any perceived successes, while totally glossing over the (many, many) failed attempts at making any real gain via e-networking.

    Mostly a parallel rant. There certainly are good, tangible things that have come out of the social media sphere – but I don’t think the change is or will be as pronounced as the proponents go out of their way to claim.

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