Malcolm Gladwell writes beautiful arguments that make good use of oppositions (“It’s not A that’s true, but, believe it or not, it’s the thing you never imagined: It’s B!”). They’re catchy because they’re counterintuitive, and they offer fantastic clarity in the face of confusing ideas.  But at times, Gladwell favors the beauty of his arguments over their accuracy. 


In his latest beautiful if dubious argument, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” an essay in The New Yorker, he describes a few delusions we have about the internet. He argues that even though we celebrate the internet as a catalyst for dramatic political change, it actually marks our falling away from real political investment. 


His argument is largely the following: To make radical political change, you need to commit to a cause among friends; most political revolution includes risking your life, which, history shows, we’re only really likely to do among people we care deeply for.  While we make all sorts of political affiliations with people on the internet, these connections are largely to faceless strangers; and this decrease in real-life social bonds means a decreased incentive to risk our lives for revolution. 


(In the last paragraphs of his paper, Galdwell also argues that the internet is ineffective for revolution because it disencourages hierarchical leadership, which has also proven important in effective revolutions through history.  But here I’ll maintain my attention where he maintained his: in this real-life-friends argument.)


In turn, Gladwell takes issue with a few new popular books about the internet, including Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith’s The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media to Drive Social Changeand Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. These books give us what might be called convincing common wisdom: The internet is a great vehicle for political activism because it gives otherwise-disenfranchised people a voice and a chance to mobilize large forces quickly.

Gladwell counterargues by suggesting that while the internet is a good place to share ideas, encourage group enthusiasm, and even pool material recourses, life on the internet takes us away from the real-life bonds that would keep us deeply committed to risky public behavior.  He says that in the past, effective revolutions largely depended on what Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam terms “strong-tie” relationships.  A strong-tie relationship is a long-standing social bond, like a friendship from childhood.  If you’re entering a revolution alongside someone you care for deeply, you’re more likely to risk your life or your life savings for the issue at stake. 


Gladwell gives interesting examples to illustrate the power of the strong-tie bond in history’s revolutions that have mattered, beginning with a description of the Woolworth’s counter sit-in in 1960, central to the Civil Rights Movement.  The four students who launched the sit-in, Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain, planned it for a month and were understandably terrified, only gradually building courage to begin.  They then managed to sit at the counter through a week, during which the football team, the police, and even the KKK came by, threatening their lives.  Gladwell suggests that the young boys only found the courage to continue their protest because they had each other, in a mutual commitment was a “deep-tie”: They all lived in the same college dorm, and three of them had gone to high school together.   It was precisely the accountability to friends that gave them courage to stage an extended protest at the risk of their lives.


In a parallel strong-tie commitment, 70 percent of the revolutionaries in the Red Brigades, an Italian Marxist-Leninist group of the 1970’s, had at least one good friend in the organization before joining.  A similar statistic underlies recruitment to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.  And: The primary factor determining commitment to certain demonstrations in East Germany leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall was the number of friends that revolutionaries had who were also critical of the government.  People were more likely to join in the fight if they had the intellectual support of people they knew well.  Lastly: One fourth of the people who joined the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project of 1964, a big part of the Civil Rights Movement, dropped out at some point, because the work was so dangerous and unsettling.  But it was those people in the movement who joined alongside a long-standing friend who were more likely to stay the course of the Project, while activists making the trip on their own tended to drop out.  This was true even if the initial level of expressed enthusiasm was equal.  We risk our lives alongside people we’re committed to, and not as much with relative strangers.


To continue to make his point, Gladwell offers some other statistics of online complacency: The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, but those members have only donated an average of nine cents each.  Perhaps it’s easy, he says, to fantasize that you’re politically committed when you can do so from the comfort of your bedroom without real risk.  The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, but they’ve only given an average of 35 cents each.  Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, donating an average of 15 cents each.  Perhaps the online world is a place to stage your idealized altruism while indulging your decreased investment.


That said, I wonder if Gladwell is cherry-picking his examples.  He’s probably right that courage requires a good support team, but he’s picked examples from the pre-internet days (Red Brigades and Berlin Wall) when you essentially had to find your support team through real-life encounters.  In contrast, today, we make many affiliations online, and we have yet to see how powerful the motivations behind those affiliations might be.  Maybe in the past I did I need ten like-minded friends or cousins to feel intellectually supported in my efforts at the Berlin Wall; but maybe in the future, I’ll feel equally supported by 5,000 online acquaintances who have bolstered my politics daily and so given me my core sense of self, my identity worth defending. 


After all, isn’t the Tea Party an example of an important political movement in which individuals are committing to something new (perhaps many leaving the political party of their friends or parents), largely because of online incentive?  It might be that the very nature of the “deep-tie” is changing.  As we increasingly develop our identities in the online world, our sense of affiliation to online “friends” might become more central to identity and self-esteem. 


In terms of the cherry-picked evidence, I’m also thinking of certain revolutions in history where intellectual commitment to an ideal seemed as “deep” a tie as friends who lived close to you were.  I actually don’t know what role family and friendship connections played in the Spanish Civil War, but I do know that that war attracted a large number of individual, high-minded revolutionaries from all over the world—people who left their homelands on account of political principle.  Perhaps people can in fact commit, body and soul, through an ideological commitment which kindles a large sense of interpersonal commitment through imagined affiliation (the imagined brotherhood behind an idea).


A look at Gladwell’s Darfur statistics also suggests some opportunism in picking choice examples.  I wonder if he would have found a much greater level of financial commitment if he weren’t just polling the Darfur Facebook pages, which are the online wing that’s dedicated to casual networking as opposed to financial investment.  If he had run his statistics on the Save Darfur Coalition homepage itself, he likely would have found a bigger level of financial commitment.


Of course for anyone who’s read my blog in the past, you know I’m a Gladwell fanatic, and in spite of my analysis, I have the sense that a lot of what he’s saying is still true: We’re detached from real political investments these days because we gratify ourselves with fantasy political commitments online.  We can spend 10 hours a day doing “political stuff” online without really risking our lives to change the world.  As our face-to-face relationships decrease in prominence in our lives, our incentive to risk our lives among others also decreases.  We become blissfully detached from real forms of risky change.


But still not sure. Have any of you read The Dragonfly Effect or Here Comes Everybody, and what do you think of Gladwell’s critique of the internet “revolution”? 



Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.

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by Sunltcloud on ‎10-02-2010 01:49 PM

I read Gladwell's article in the New Yorker a few days ago and had some of the same reservations you have - his mostly pre-internet examples. But I have always felt that he picks some of his examples to fit his position. This was especially of interest to me in "Blink" where he says, "We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that- sometimes - we're better off that way."


On the other hand I do believe that the real revolution takes place on the street and not on social networking sites.


What the internet is good for is the ease with which one can "belong." Like, share, retweet, blog,  - disseminate the message - and, of course, contribute. Monetary contributions are made simple; I can show my good will with a text message; ten dollars leave my checking account immediately to join the "cause." An emotional moment is caught before it dissipates into the reality of my limited budget.


The internet is wonderful for enthusiasts like me who want to be part of a movement, but no longer have the willpower to march for hours on end in the rain, though I have done it when I was younger. Social networking sites like facebook and twitter allow me to dream of a better world because they inform and include.


I watch with great joy the growth of the site for the "Rally to Restore Sanity." I had intended to go but was a bit slow in researching the availability of hotels etc. Now I just watch. On September 18 I checked participation on the site and saw:

72,473 attending, 36,879 maybe attending, 1,946 not attending. By September 24 the responses had increased: 150,562 attending, 80,390 maybe attending, 338,113 awaiting reply, 112,798 not attending. Today, October 2 the counters say, 183,835 attending, 99,948 maybe attending, 346,107 awaiting reply, 159,823 not attending.


The number of responses indicates to me that there is a large wave of enthusiasm and I am very pleased with this participation. But, and here I agree wholeheartedly with Gladwell, there is a difference between participation and motivation. As I understand his argument, participation in a cause is not the same as the actual act of revolution, which requires a high level of motivation. High levels of motivation come, so Gladwell argues, from close ties with those around us, rather than from facebook friends. I do wonder if this will hold true in the future, but for now I believe it.


I personally envision revolutions being born from individual acts of courage. They might or might not be preceeded by political maneuvering or by long discussions with friends, and they might or might not be successful, but they are very personal. A small hammer chipping away at a wall. A lone man standing in front of a row of tanks. A young asthmatic doctor writing in his journal in the jungle. An old man looking out  the window in his jail cell on Robben Island.Or a woman like Aung San Suu Kyi, who says in one of her most famous speeches: "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it." She is still under house arrest. I doubt that she has access to facebook, but I bet the well-being of her homeland is foremost on her mind and she is highly motivated to fight for it.  

by on ‎10-02-2010 04:16 PM

Light...of sunlight in the clouds, it's been too long, G.!  You do wrap it all into a beautiful package, something I can't do!


I'm not a follower of Gladwell, unless he's mentioned here on this board. But I do tend to lean into the  general followings of " the beauty of his arguments over their accuracy".   Phrasing of certain words speak loudly!


The word "revolution" struck me as a fierce word!  A strong word!  How many of us are, or were, or ever will be involved in a revolution, of any sort, generated on the internet, or off the internet?  That was my first reaction to this enlightened conversation.


I think this statement holds this issue in our hands:  "If you’re entering a revolution alongside someone you care for deeply, you’re more likely to risk your life or your life savings for the issue at stake."  or  "People were more likely to join in the fight if they had the intellectual support of people they knew well. "


I think we can know people very well on the internet, but in the same breath,  friendship is a dubious concept to count on in this environment, to take you into a cause.  I call it a concept, because I've spent years breaking this "friendship" "relationship" process down, in my own networking history.


Internet friendships are like putting water into cheese cloth, it all seeps away unless you establish a common bond, and keep that bond alive, that common ground, that strong point of interest.  If that goes away, so goes the friendship.  If you think you can use this "friendship"  to gather up momentum for a cause, you'll find yourself in a room full of smoke and mirrors, easy outs.   A blank screen to stare into.


The only way I see strength in any of this, call it revolution if you must, is when there is strength in standing beside that other person.  Physical contact.  Physical eye contact; shoulder to shoulder; emotional contact - where leaning into that support system won't fall apart;  it's the only way to move a cause forward effectively with efficiency.


I have no doubt you can scare up a few people, and money, for any cause, and only the beauty of the words can bring it about in a gentler manner, taking your supporters with an easy hand, instead of a hard, belligerent one.  Win with logic and understanding, not force that shows a singular cause.  Trust, acceptance.


In a work place community, you strike a central bond with a common interest.  While I was out on strike, we banded together until we were one.  We stood together.  You have to remember, though, the reasons behind this banding.  The subject of this motivation is key to understanding.  If you don't have this, it all falls apart, becoming just a crowd of angry individuals ruled by abstract, illogical emotional feelings. 


A gentle hand, a caring hand, motivates and balances a group of people better than a hard angry fist.  We all navigate around on these internet sights for one reason or another.  Do we really understand those reasons?   And how well do we ever really know that someone else?


Yes, for the most part, we are not into taking risks, or investing into something, or someone, who may be here today, and gone tomorrow.  These are commitments, and choices.  Can we make any of these?  I've tried, and I've failed.  Failure isn't my favorite place to find myself.

by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎10-03-2010 12:36 PM

Hi Sun behind our Clouds!  I join Kathy in welcoming your voice.


I like your tracking of the projected numbers for the "Rally to Restore Sanity" and do wonder how many of those 183,835 who pledged attendance actually made it.


Your image of lone souls contributing in powerful ways to revolution from afar resonates with me.


But don't say you're a woman who's too tired.  I heard a bit about your last trip.  It would have exhausted me in the real world but thrilled me online.

by on ‎10-03-2010 02:52 PM

Total lack understanding of how the internet has changed politics and public behavior.


Look at how largely our current president election funds were piled up 6 bucks at a time over the internet. By millions of people who never considered giving any money to a politician prior.


Politicians who watch their facebook pages, closer than the news coverage. Politicians who last election got unelected due to the idiocy of their tweets. Politicians ruined by a couple of YouTube videos.


In a day when a citizen can look up every article and taped interview, and not depend on a reporter finding their gaffs. The world has changed.


Guess the guy has never seen what a flash mob can do either.


Did he miss the Homeland Security being called in over a few guerrilla neon signs advertising an upcoming movie? Is he even aware of guerrilla advertising?




by Sunltcloud on ‎10-03-2010 05:45 PM


Yes, the belated California summer heat has taken away my cloud and exposed me to the world for a brief time, but as of today I am crawling back into my shell. I watched German TV (20 years of reunification on October 3, 2010) for the last 16 hours, since ten last night, (unfortunately I fell asleep between three and five and missed two segments) and have to look up a ton of stuff on peaceful revolutions etc, but wanted to comment on something you, Ilana, mentioned. You wrote, "your image of lone souls contributing in powerful ways from afar resonates with me."


Not from afar; I probably did not make that clear.

1. The small hammer chipping away at a wall is anybody who came out on Nov 9, 2009, and hammered away on the Berlin Wall. And though the fall of the wall was preceded by many things, for instance the Monday protests in Leipzig, the fact that somebody took a hammer to the wall that kept him/her isolated from the rest of the world for 40 years, is an act of revolution.

2. A lone man in front of a row of tanks.

This refers to the lone man who stood in front of a group of tanks in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. This was an anonymous act of defiance that took lots of courage.

3. The young asthmatic doctor is Che Guevara resting from a day of marching toward his death.

4. The man looking out of his jail cell is Nelson Mandela. He too was present at the revolution as long as I can remember back .

5. The Burmese woman under house arrest is keeping track from afar, but I think that one day she will be part of it again, unless they kill her first.


And yes, Tigger, the internet has changed politics and public behaviour, because it has changed how we get our information and how we disseminate our own thoughts, but has it changed the motivation behind revolution? Did the internet help support the Iranians in their daring public defiance of  Ahmadinejad's regime? There was a lot of discussion and, true, a few ex-pat Iranians went home to participate, but those who died or where put in jail were the people who, living under his regime, suffer under his regime, discussed it among themselves or lay in their beds at night, forming a plan, hoping to bring about a revolution.


As for mobs, I don't doubt their power to destroy, but I do wonder if they have the collective conviction of a group of revolutionaries. I look at a mob as an easily swayed entity who might coincidentally start a revolution, but might trash my neighborhood instead, if the door to the pizza parlor is boarded up.

by on ‎10-05-2010 02:10 AM

Ah Sunltcloud


Though it did not stop the resent problems in Iran. Phone cameras, and a facebook blog about a girl's murder; did keep it shorter, less bloody, and fewer (get arrested and no one ever sees you again, usually because your there ah word for that?). It at least wasn't the next Tiamen Square bit.


A flash mob and a mob are not the same things. (shakes head) Mods are destructive, crazy, and get out of hand. A flash mob is everyone on-line deciding to get together and do something all at the same time and place. So if you're are around, and 30+ people all show up and start sing the same song while in bunny suits; you been surrounded by a flash mob. They come out of nowhere, mess with the heads of every others, and then go away quick. Right now they're silly and fun, but they don't have to be.


by Sunltcloud on ‎10-05-2010 12:36 PM

Thanks for the explanation, Tigger. I knew I should have looked up "flash mob." It sounds like something I wouldn't understand to begin with. Must be a: my age or b: my background. I don't understand it the way I don't understand "Yarn Bombing." Maybe I just don't like to have my head messed with.

You are absolutely right about the protests in Iran; so, maybe there is hope; maybe someday the internet will produce a hybrid between flash mob and facebook blog and iPhone camera - a trinity of forces that might mess with a dictator's head.

by Sunltcloud on ‎10-05-2010 04:06 PM

Just had another thought. Some called the uprising in Iran the "Twitter Revolution," but since content is often not verifiable it is also unreliable. It can be manipulated by governments and can be used to track down dissidents. Governments can also channel or shut down social networking sites within geographical reasons.


I have not had the time yet to find statistics on the aftermath of the uprising last year, but would like to see some pointed out to me. Did social networking really prevent deaths and incarcerations? While I don't doubt that sympathetic tweets during high stake engagements by revolutionary movements uplift and support the masses(provided they are connected) what is a 140 character message able to communicate during downtime, during day to day harrassment and persecution? I am not talking about the interpersonal tweets between friends who fought or will fight together in the streets; I am talking about the outsiders of good will who support the revolution from the safety of their expat countries or the armchair freedom of their.democratic living rooms.

by on ‎10-05-2010 05:14 PM

There is a really good Nation Geographic article within the past year, several pages on Iran the internet, and the aftermath; your library should be able to find it.


Yard Bombing... ah it's a colorful nicer TB-ing.


A lot of the new stuff is just that making the people around you think different through pretty, not hurting, kind of silly, different pictures. Basically the idea is if something can make you think outside of your normal box mind for even a min, something in you can change.


by Sunltcloud on ‎10-05-2010 07:45 PM

Thanks TiggerBear, I'll check it out.


I know what you mean about silly things trying to make you think outside the box, and I agree; it's just that sometimes I have to shake my head when I hear or see something new. A couple of days ago, for instance, I heard about this new problem for the first time and I walked around my house laughing (all by myself) for several minutes. This new problem is something we get when we use our laptop for too long. I won't get it because I usually have mine sitting on a tray, but others might, if they hold theirs on their laps. It is called - are you ready for this? TOASTED LEG SYNDROME. I think I'd rather join a flash mob in wrapping a few tree trunks in afghan squares than have my doctor tell me that I have TOASTED LEG SYMDROME. (I know this has nothing to do with the revolution or the internet; I'm just feeling silly - can't find my box.)

Have a wonderful evening.



by on ‎10-06-2010 05:27 PM

Laptops, especially the cheaper one's have thermal issues. Something to be aware of.You can invest in better thermal cooling, but that's aftermarket stuff.


Cellphones and Ipods do too if left on too long, especially as the battery gets older. They slowly burn their shielding.


But sounds like too many people not reading the documentation that comes with their gadgets. The manufacturers warm them right out of the box.




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