I've been thinking about a response to write Malcolm Gladwell's Small Change and his typical "advocacy doesn't happen online" half-hearted probe into causes and movements. However I've been waiting to see if there is another riff out there that I agree with most so I could just re-tweet it and move on.
I have seen some strong rebukes of Gladwell's article but I'm compelled to jump into the fun. I think the bottom line is that Gladwell needs to hang out with more activists (smart guy and great other books).
Not that it matters what us advocates think, but I totally disagree with Gladwell. There will be no revolution that is not supported (and tweeted) by a coordinated advocacy network. The network will leverage the most powerful and accessible tools to communicate persuade and coordinate. The successful movement will use every means possible to connect and synchronize with people who care about an issue. I don't know if Gladwell ever worked on a campaign or part of a movement with a loose network of people to get a policy changed but based on this article I doubt it. I also think he totally confuses deep personal anger and connection with the effects of racism with social ties. I bet there were all kinds of new friendships made in the protests and after not before as he suggests. They were not there for a social event.
First, social networks are not advocacy networks. People who hate each other can work and participate effectively in the same advocacy network. People who hate each other destroy the same social network. Social networks beget social outcomes. Invest in advocacy networks and you get advocacy outcomes. Advocacy networks use social media. Some social networks engage in activism. (Gladwell seriously confuses these concepts.)
All networks have a purpose and a value. The way the network is built sets a norm. Dating networks are sometimes used to create business deals. Sometimes people who work together date. People can use networks for other purposes but sometimes it is creepy. Match.com is not going to solve world hunger. The civil rights advocates were connected to an advocacy network. Facebook is a social network. Twitter is a communication tool. Advocacy networks use these to get things done and connect people together for advocacy.
The civil rights movement did not happen without scale, communications and coordination. It did not happen without synchronizing efforts of people. Yes, it happened without e-mail, Facebook and twitter but who the hell would do this kind of work today without using the best tools available? Shack Dwellers International coordinates with skype and email. I know advocates. We know what activism is. I also know they will use twitter, facebook and email. So yes, the revolution will be tweeted.
Activism is about creating change, shifting power, distributing rights, fighting injustice and waste. Gladwell may think it is about protests, passion, commitment and strong ties. He is simply wrong. Show me a serious force shaping today's culture or politics that is not online? Broadcasting challenges to authority, speaking out against norms, raising consciousness and fighting authority and trends empowers others to do the same. The communication grid in a network fosters a common vision, common language, and distributes ownership of an agenda. Uprisings happened when people speak the truth and are heard. Uprisings are inspired by communication of stories that move people. Networks don't centralize the ownership of the campaign they spread it. The civil rights was a movement because so many were inspired to own it. If Al Gore or any one group "owns" the climate campaign we are sunk. HealthCare reform was a massive network effort fighting very centralized efforts.
The more that people can coordinate on their own, the less they will be victimized. The more we connect resources of attention, money, wisdom and political capital behind these groups and leaders the faster the revolution will happen. It does not matter if those resources come from small donations or large, from one person volunteering for one year or 10,000 for 10 min. each. The opportunity and revolution of our time will be tweeted. We will continue to move deeper into the long-tail of engagement to engage new voices and resources.
Human nature has not changed but our behavior has. That has changed the landscape. I like committed and passionate people. I love the underdog. I'm inspired by those that sacrifice so much for the cause. Can that really be the only way people can achieve revolution? Political donors used to believe that you had to donate thousands of dollars to influence politics. The longtail of political organizing has just started. It is increasingly feasible, powerful and sustainable to act small and coordinate small bits from lots of people. A small bit of passion, money, voice and vote counts. The next revolution is more voices, and groups, and the new ways that people can engage.
The closing paragraphs of Gladwell's article reveal how little Gladwell really gets the subject of change and movements. Advocacy networks use twitter, Facebook, cell phones, blogs, secret handshakes, dances, puppets, rituals, newsletters, whatever. The successful advocacy network engages all ties (weak and strong) to create options for leveraging anything available in the fight. Advocacy networks spread issue ties like "the fever" Gladwell keeps referring to. Social networks are not required by design to grow. Advocacy networks are designed to grow.
Advocacy networks power many types of activities. In a healthy advocacy network, you have core groups planning the really big and complex activities, you have specialist that spread talents around the network and you have "walk-ins" all running experiments and operations to move the agenda forward. Networks don't have a boss but they are filled with leaders. Network means connectivity not leaderless or inept (or efficient ). Networks have varying degrees of "organized clusters " from the example of the Obama 2008 campaign (strong center) to smaller scale examples such as work on gay rights (loose center), the anti-war movement, anti-immigration, pro-migration, tea-party, deaniacs or the many, many which Clay Shirkey brings up.
Healthy networks have a fluid governance (because they are designed to have redundant leadership) but I have never been in quickly operating highly functional network "government by consensus". That's not how networks are governed. In advocacy networks, advocates and resources swarm around success and experiments (think Cindy Sheehan in Crawford TX) Increasingly, they are using communication tools to figure out what is working, learn, share and synchronize. The early successes in the next revolution will be tweeted (put on facebook, etc) the network will swarm around what is working. The next revolution will be tweeted.
Small change matters. The activists networks are getting better everyday at figuring out how to leverage these networks to drive real change. We are getting better on understanding the mechanics of what makes and effective advocacy network and designing new networks for emerging movements.
Seeing the influence of networks on social change requires the right perspective and understanding of advocacy to see what is going on. Gladwell just misses it. He needs to hang out with more activists.