I’m not really a fan of Malcolm Gladwell and his cohort of star authors who spin one vaguely interesting idea into a entire “paradigm-smashing” book. But he is spot on when he dismisses Twitter as “more of the same… not the enemy of the status quo”.
His vaguely interesting idea here is basically that really big changes come about when people with strong social ties are willing to stick it out in a nasty battle to win the day. Social networks with weak ties (e.g. just following each other on Twitter) will fall apart if they try to take on power to make a really big change because in the process they will probably have to suffer a loss of income, physical injury, etc. Twitter messaging won’t motivate them to stick out the hardship.
But by pitting Twitter against a political movement as momentous as American Civil Rights in the 1950s and 60s, he obscures a much more fundamental point. In fact, by obsessing on the tools and tactics employed by activists he fails to notice that the Twitter mythology and failures he describes are really to do with an absense of good strategy.
Ineffective online activism is better exemplified by 38 Degrees, the spam service for angry people looking for a quick fix. Their recent spat-in-a-teacup with an MP exposed the curious importance some put on being able to “send a message to the man” no matter how little impact that might have.
If you want to vent your angrer in reaction to events that piss you off – for example, to attack the Government’s agenda of cuts – then Tweeting angry messages and starting Facebook groups are a great way of satisfying your emotions. But so are marches through city centres, rain-sodden rallies outside town halls and petitions on street stalls. Being ineffective isn’t an online phenomenon.
In discussing a reaction to the Government’s cuts agenda there will be endless calls for petitions, marches, lobbies, speeches, stalls, and blogs. Policy platforms will be formulated without any regard to whether they would actually help, by for example lobbying councils to pass illegal budgets. Lessons from the past will be brushed aside or even return from the grave because the idea of venting, of making a “clear statement”, will be more appealing than the business of working out how we can actually shift the agenda.
Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the rest can be very useful tactics if put in the context of a wider strategy that convincingly describes how those tactics will bring about your aims.
Gladwell takes his vaguely interesting idea too far by suggesting that “the revolution won’t be tweeted”. What he really means is that “tweeting won’t cause a revolution.”