In February of 1968, at an exhibition in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, a catalog regarding an artist’s work on display contained a phrase that would forever reflect the growing fickle nature of societies and popularity. The artist was Andy Warhol and the catalog contained a phrase that read “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
February of 1968 may be a more appropriate period of history for Malcom Gladwell to keep at the forefront of his mind when pontificating about the efficacy of tools used by – and then discarded by – society. In his recent work for The New Yorker, Gladwell attempts to harness the emotional power of the “sentinel campaigns of the civil-rights movement” to situate his argument devaluing emerging social technologies safely inside the protected walls of a movement nobody could in good conscience publicly attack.
Well, I’m not against the civil-rights movement, obviously, but I do have a thing or two to say about Mr. Gladwell’s assertions:
1.) Taking such an obviously polarizing position on such an innocuous claim as “the revolution will not be tweeted” strikes me as an interestingly desperate grasp to remain relevant; he might as well have just quoted Prince that “the internet is dead.”
2.) It is clear to me that not everyone is capable of accepting the notion that ALL our presuppositions are currently being called into question; one can easily talk about change and notice the evidence of it stirring the pot of public perception without participating in the perspective shift that is causing it.
Permit me to work backward through those points.
I do not wish to claim that Mr. Gladwell’s assertions about the character of his representative movements of activism are false. There is some good work here pointing out the drama and value of the stories behind how seeds of change can finally be nurtured to bring forth good fruit. Neither do I feel compelled to devalue the importance for each individual in distinguishing between “weak ties” and “strong ties” in leaning on any social network – whether it be digitally mediated or not.
What seems striking to me is his assertion that activism must somehow fit into his window of what change must look like – that there can be no change without risk, and that historically relevant activism must remain capable of threatening mortality.
It would seem he is saying that those for whom participation in activism causes mortal risk are activists that are participating in an activism that is somehow more genuine or valid. Those who donate ten cents to help rebuild Haiti are not activists at all, it would seem, but rather just dupes who have continued their pattern of being duped into knee-jerk reactions that appear to cost little and therefore mean nothing.
It is clear to me that Mr. Gladwell sees that what digitally mediated social networks are best at in their infancy is mitigating the potency of social problems by allowing the burden of them to be distributed across a wider plane of potential problems solvers. What Mr. Gladwell seems to be missing is the fundamental shift that is calling ALL of our presuppositions into question. What does change look like? Who affects it? How is it done?
Mr. Gladwell’s assertion that true, effective activism must have hierarchical organization smacks of fascism and runs counter to what could very well be the single most valuable aspect of digitally mediated social networks in regards to activism; when there is no centralized control over agenda, there is less chance of activism’s susceptibility to corruption – less chance that selfish people can steal the emotional power of the need for change and harness it for their own personal gain.
I do not recognize Malcom Gladwell as an authority on the efficacy of digitally mediated social networks as agents for social change and valid mediums for activism. I don’t agree with his perspective about what change looks like – about what true activism must require. A burden shared is a burden lightened; that is the sum value of social media as a venue for activism – the true value to social ties of any kind, digital or otherwise. Mr. Gladwell would rather place the light of examination in a different corner – calling attention to the differences between activisms of the past and the character of emerging activisms.
Such obfuscation seems to me to be evidence of an inability to participate in the re-examining of existing presuppositions that these tools have facilitated at this moment in history. It also seems indicative of an oddly desperate attempt for a cultural icon to remain culturally relevant. For some time now, Mr. Gladwell has enjoyed the perks that come along with being world-famous, yet society is an increasingly fickle friend and this is an age wherein a boy with some cover songs put on YouTube by his mom can easily capture and hold more attention than a seasoned pseudo-academic.
Without attention, there can be no change at all – no activism, no activity. With the right profile of attention gathering investment returns, a fascist can earn trillions. With the right channels of wide attention gathering, feedback generation, and information distribution – emerging activists can organize without centralization and lessen the burden of the need for social change. Even activism deserves to be democratized. Desperate times call for desperate declaratives, however, and “the revolution will not be tweeted” seems just that. 15 minutes is an awfully short time and often goes by unrecognizably fast for some.