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Activism Worthy of the Name

by Nick Gall  |  October 4, 2010  |  8 Comments

What I find most disappointing, irritating, and dismissive about Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted is that it sets the activism bar so high. He’s dismissive of any form of activism except “high-risk activism”: “Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.” And since “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism”, he’s dismissive of such ties as well.

Gladwell dismisses (or at least denigrates) less risky forms of activism and the weak ties that can enable it. Weak ties (and the social media that supports and enables them) can lead to low-risk activism (say a donation to the Haiti relief fund, or voting for one candidate instead of another) or even medium-risk activism (submitting something to wiki-leaks).

Why in the world shouldn’t we celebrate and encourage such lower-risk activism? And it’s not just social media activities that fail the “high risk” test. Most marches and demonstrations in Washington are pretty low risk, so are they unworthy of our efforts? Are silent vigils? Are fund raising events like “walks for <fill in the blank>”?

Gladwell comes off as implying that only high-risk activism makes a difference and that any other form of activism is some sort of cop-out: “It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” So if I’m not willing to risk my life in my activism, I shouldn’t even bother? Or I shouldn’t call it activism?

Sorry. I don’t buy it. I think every little bit helps change the world. Small is beautiful…even small change.

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Category: social-networks  

Nicholas Gall
VP Distinguished Analyst
14 years at Gartner
35 years IT industry

Nick Gall is a vice president in Gartner Research. As a founding member of Gartner’s Enterprise Planning and Architecture Strategies, Mr. Gall advises clients on enterprise strategies for interoperability, innovation and execution. Mr. Gall is a leading authority on middleware… Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Activism Worthy of the Name

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nick Gall, Uptime Devices. Uptime Devices said: Activism Worthy of the Name […]

  2. Scott Olson says:

    I totally agree with this post. What we are fighting here is a feeling of hopelessness or indifference. So called “weak activism” would be a welcome change from the disengagement many have turned to.

    Prayer, is an example of weak activism as well, but the simple act of turning our attention and energy toward a problem can have surprising results.

  3. I think it’s a mistake to polarize this too much – strong ties versus weak ties, high risk versus low risk. Clearly there are valid intermediate positions. as well as the possibility of progressing from trivial action to more effective action. As you say, medium-risk stuff is important too.

    However, when Gladwell refers to charity fundraising efforts on the Internet that only raise a few cents per person, you have to admit that’s pretty pathetic. And he is also right to be sceptical about the supposedly revolutionary power of Twitter – regimes are not so easily toppled by armchair protests from a safe distance, and Twitter has not yet mobilized any social or political movement as effective as the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa or the Civil Rights movement in the USA.

    Gladwell may not be the world’s greatest authority on social and political change, but I don’t think Clay Shirky is either. What I think Gladwell is really opposing is the foolish idea (which surely not even Shirky would defend) that Twitter and other technologies make old-fashioned political activism unnecessary or irrelevant.

  4. Nick Gall says:


    Thanks for the cogent response.

    “What I think Gladwell is really opposing is the foolish idea (which surely not even Shirky would defend) that Twitter and other technologies make old-fashioned political activism unnecessary or irrelevant.”

    Who in the world is supposedly espousing this idea?! Gladwell is attacking an outlandish strawman. Several other responses to Gladwell have also highlighted this strawman he is attacking.

    It is Gladwell who is polarizing this debate with caricatures like: “The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend.”

    Can Gladwell or anyone provide a quote to support such a ridiculous claim? Or a quote that effectively says ANY technology will make high-risk activism unnecessary or irrelevant? Then we might have something to debate.

    As to fundraising, Gladwell of course highlights the failures, but he ignores the successes. Donating via texting has been a major success. Donations to Haiti via texting were over $20 million! See this New York Times article for more: . And check out the organization behind it:

    The success of texting donations directly contradicts Gladwell’s contention that making action so easy (eg clicking a “like” button) leads to no effective action. By making donating easy, more people donate. I’d call that a huge win for technology. One that Gladwell ignores.

  5. The point isn’t whether anyone is espousing this idea, but whether people are acting as if it were true – for example if significant numbers of people imagine that clicking on a link is almost as good as actually giving money (which would seem to be the most likely interpretation of the pathetically small average donation on some of these sites) or that tweeting something from the comfort of your desk is almost as good as turning up to a real march in the rain.

    $20 million might seem like a successful campaign, possibly helped by the temporary solidarity effected by a sporting event, but I believe that the overall long-term trend of charitable donation is downwards. Obviously Gladwell is simplifying the argument for journalistic effect, but I think there are still some interesting questions here about the relationship between technology and politics.

  6. Nick Gall says:

    Well, I think both are relevant (espousing and acting), but agree that the demonstrating an actual causal link between increased use of twitter/FB and decreased activism (incl charitable giving) would definitely support Gladwell’s argument.

    But Gladwell’s article provides no such evidence! He merely cherry-picks a couple of examples of pathetic donation amounts generated by mere “clicking”. I provided counter-examples of inspiring donation amounts generated by mere “clicking”. BTW, the $20MM Haiti donations I cited in my comment, are only one example of many. Check out the site for more.

    As for your claim that charitable donations are trending downward, first I’d have to see the evidence for such a claim. Second, I’d have to see evidence that twitter/FB/et al were a causal factor in such a decline (as opposed to say, actually slowing the trend caused by other factors).

    But such arguments should have been provided by Gladwell in his article, instead of strawmen and one-sided anecdotes. He could have done a piece that, as you say, raised “some interesting questions here about the relationship between technology and politics.” But instead he gave answers, unsupported answers: twitter/FB/et al are hurting activism. Not a good way to encourage a thoughtful debate. But a good way to gain notoriety.

  7. Re long-term trends. Here’s an old study from the UK. I don’t have any US data.

    CATHY PHAROAH and SARAH TANNER, Trends in Charitable Giving.
    Fiscal Studies (1997) vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 427–443

  8. Nick Gall says:


    In the US, charitable giving has been trending upwards for decades. In only dropped in 2009 due to the recession. See Giving USA 2010 Report at . So I don’t think the Internet has had a negative effect…yet.

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