September 30 Update | A participant in an online chat asked Gladwell about my essay yesterday. His response, and my response to his response, can be found here.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” he argues that “strong-tie” relationships — bonds among people who share intense personal connections — are necessary to any serious activist project. Because online organizing builds on “weak-tie” relationships, he suggests, the world of Twitter and Facebook is unsuited to substantial, world-changing activism.
The centerpiece of Gladwell’s essay is his retelling of the story of the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. Gladwell is right to note that the first of those sit-ins sprung from the strong-tie friendships among its student organizers at North Carolina A&T. He rightly notes as well that established activists throughout the South did much to facilitate the growth of the campaign in the weeks and months that followed. But he neglects the role that pre-internet social networking — ad hoc communication among college students connected through fraternities and sororities, loose friendship clusters, student governments, or just shared hang-out spaces — played in spreading the word and building the movement.
And if you’re looking for weak-tie organizing in the activism of the sixties, the civil rights movement — church-led, small-town-based, building on the preparatory work of decades of communal struggle — is the wrong place to start, anyway. The right place to start is the student movement centered on Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Where SNCC, the sixties’ main student-led civil rights group, emerged as a “beloved community” of organizers bound by the strongest of strong ties, and struggled after it outgrew that intimacy, SDS achieved its greatest success as a loose confederation of far-flung chapters. In SDS’s heyday its members shared no single ideology, no strong bonds of personal connection, no uniformity of tactics or strategy. What they shared was a sense of being part of a movement, of something called SDS.
SDS never had a particularly large staff, but it did have a few organizers that it would send out into the field. These staffers would check the organization’s records, figure out where there were opportunities to build new chapters, and hit the road.
And when they did, they would regularly make strange discoveries. They’d arrive on a campus that they thought would be a good candidate for a new outpost, find a couple of likely activists, start making their pitch, and get a quizzical look in return. “If you folks are from SDS, you should really be talking to Janice and Stanley. They’re the co-chairs of our SDS group. Have been for a couple of years now.”
Local SDS chapters were often forged out of strong-tie bonds, of course, but that’s not how the group spread on the national level. On the national level, students would read about SDS in Newsweek, or hear about it in a letter from a friend, or see a rally on TV, and think “we should do that here.” And then they would, and a lot of time they wouldn’t bother to send in membership dues, show up at national conferences, or file a charter with the main office. They’d just do their thing.
SDS wasn’t so much a national organization as a national idea.
Gladwell’s primary examples of contemporary online organizing — Iran, Darfur — are ones in which the barriers to Westerners moving beyond low-level involvement are extraordinarily high. Other than putting a badge on our Twitter icons or donating a few bucks to Doctors Without Borders, there’s really not much that most of us can do about a political crisis halfway around the world. And so our organizing on those issues is inevitably going to be haphazard and short-lived.
In taking these crises as his model, though, Gladwell adopts an all-or-nothing approach to the question of whether activism is “serious.” If you’re not sitting in at a lunch counter, he suggests, or on the ground in Tehran, you’re not doing much of anything. But one of his own examples of weak-tie organizing reveals the poverty of that binary conception.
A few years ago a Silicon Valley entrepreneur was diagnosed with leukemia, and discovered that because his ethnic group — South Asians — was underrepresented in the national bone marrow registry, there was no suitable match for him on file. His business partner launched an internet campaign to recruit South Asians to the registry, one that ultimately added 24,000 people to the list.
Gladwell calls this an effort that got people on board “by not asking too much of them,” and on one level, that’s correct. It takes minimal effort to click over to a website and type in your address, and not much more to swab your cheek and return the kit they send you.
It’s easy — but most people still don’t bother. Most folks need a goad. And if that’s all this had been, a goad to get people to do something easy and important, it would have been great.
It was quite a bit more than that, though, because actually donating bone marrow isn’t easy. It involves a doctor drilling a hole into your pelvis. It’s usually done under general anesthetic. The pain can persist for several weeks. And in a not-insignificant number of cases, serious complications result.
Yes, of course, it’s easy (or at least easy-ish) get someone to fill out a web form, and yes, of course, online communities do an excellent job encouraging that kind of low-cost “activism.” But as every true activist knows, that first contact with a like-minded soul is the beginning of the process, not the end. And so it turns out that of the thousands of people who joined the registry as a result of this campaign, several hundred have already gone through the real sacrifice of donating marrow. All in hopes of saving a stranger’s life. All as a result of a social media campaign.
And yet this phenomenon is offered as evidence of the triviality of online organizing.
Gladwell is right that strong-tie relationships were a crucial part of the civil rights movement, and is a crucial part of any organizing effort. But he misses the fact that all strong ties start as weak ties, and that even weak-tie relationships can spur action within and between strong-tie communities.
The best internet-age example of this that I know of is one that Gladwell doesn’t mention at all. In 2009, California’s college students were reeling from the effects of state budget cuts. Their tuition had been raised by fifty percent in just two years. Class sizes were growing, course offerings were shrinking, enrollment was being cut. Students were being locked out of courses they needed to graduate. All while administrative expenses continued to mushroom.
So they rebelled.
On the first day of fall classes ten thousand students protested across the University of California. In the weeks that followed, activists sat in. They phone banked. They marched on the state Capitol. They took over campus buildings across the state. Hundreds were arrested, others were tased and pepper-sprayed and beaten.
And students across the country watched from afar. When California activists called a statewide day of action for March 4, 2010, students from across the country embraced the call. Organizing primarily through Twitter, Facebook, and email listserves, activists who had never met face-to-face spread the word.
By March 4 activists on well over a hundred campuses in more than thirty states had been mobilized. They held rallies and teach-ins, marches and panel discussions. For the most part, those events were mounted by students building on prior local strong-tie relationships, but social media was what spurred them to act and co-ordinated their efforts.
The American student movement of the 1960s wasn’t directed by any national body. It wasn’t, in the main, financed or facilitated by pre-existing groups. It was built at the grass roots by students who stood up when they saw their fellow activists on television or in the papers, or received newsletters from national organizations and letters from friends at distant campuses. It was a movement sparked by social networking, and it was a movement that transformed the campus and the nation.
And now, with the help of contemporary social media, a new generation of campus activists is doing it again.