The Gladwell controversy

30 Sep

Malcolm Gladwell’s current New Yorker story ‘Small change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted’ has stirred up a lot of controversy online and offline. His article is a thought-provoking piece criticizing the use of social media for ‘real’ activism. Drawing on examples from the 1960s civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King and Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam’s study that compared the movement’s dropouts with the participants who stayed, Gladwell argues that high-risk activism relies on strong-ties, whereas platforms of social media are built around weak ties.

The article mentions some important points and a much needed correction to the (over)hyping of Twitter and Facebook. But it also overlooks some important insight. Gladwell quotes Mark Granovetter’s classic 1973 paper on ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’:

‘Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation […]. ‘

Unfortunately, Gladwell then draws an erroneous conclusion:

‘Weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.’

The diffusion of information about the motives, causes and goals of a social movement as a prerequisite for any kind of activism, whether high- or low-risk. A density of strong ties certainly increases motivation but a lack of weak ties inhibits social activism. As studies of diffusion and mass communication have shown, people rarely act on mass-media information unless it is also transmitted through personal ties. Enthusiasm for an organization in one clique, then, would not spread to others but would have to develop independently in each one to insure success.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are ideal tools for the quick dissemination of information through weak ties which is an empowering mechanism that enables people to become more engaged in the causes that they support.

Gladwell argues that getting a million people to join a ‘Save Darfur’ page on Facebook is an example for social networks’ effectiveness in increasing participation by lessening the level of required motivation: ‘Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice’. But by insisting that activism only succeeds when supported by the most highly-dedicated and motivated individuals, he promotes an elitist view of activism that disregards the different ways in which activists work on causes today, and the way that activism has evolved.

Moreover, the first contact with a like-minded soul through a social network is only the beginning of the process, not the end. All strong ties start as weak ties and often social networks facilitate this transformation by decreasing communication barriers. Gladwell, who famously wrote about ‘How little things can make a big difference’ in his book ‘The Tipping Point’ has overlooked the potential of social networks to trigger real change.

Another very critical view of the so-called ‘slacktivism’ is presented here by journalist and author Evgeny Morozov:

Further reading:

McAdam, D 1986, ‘Recruitment to high-risk activism: The case of freedom summer’,  The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 92, No. 1., pp. 64-90.

Granovetter, MS 1973, ‘The strength of weak ties’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6., pp. 1360-1380.

Rogers, E 2003, ‘Diffusion networks’, in Networks in the knowledge economy, eds. Rob Cross, Andrew Parker and Lisa Sasson (2003), Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, pp. 130-179.


What’s your bra color – social contagion for a good cause?

10 Sep

Reading and debating Duncan Watts work on social contagion in networks made me think about that pointless ‘awareness’ campaign for breast cancer on Facebook that gained immense popularity at the beginning of the year. A message like the following was sent from female Facebook user to user:

“Some fun is going on…. just write the color of your bra in your status. Just the color, nothing else. It will be neat to see if this will spread the wings of breast cancer awareness. It will be fun to see how long it takes before people wonder why all the girls have a color in their status… Haha .”

Apart from the fact, that some of the messages being sent around did not even include that the desire of of the meme was to raise awareness for breast cancer, within hours, women around the world changed their Facebook status to ‘black’, ‘white’ and whatever other color their bra could be.

A similar phenomena could be seen on Twitter during the time of the elections in Iran, where Twitter users all around the world colored their avatar green to show solidarity with the people in Iran. But what triggers the rapid spread of such presumably well-intended ‘online activism’ (if you dare to call it that) on Facebook or Twitter?

In a chapter of his book ‘Six degrees: the science of a connected age’ Duncan Watts explains how social contagion or the diffusion of innovation (whereas innovation can be anything from the introduction of a new technology to a revolutionary new idea or social norm) in social networks works. The adoption of an idea by a single person depends on the person’s threshold for change and the number of neighbors he/she has in a network, equaling the number of potentially different ideas and influences. A person with either a low threshold or very few neighbors is a vulnerable node in a network. All other nodes are stable and can only be activated (as in spreading in the idea) under the right circumstances. Whether or not the information cascades and reaches the critical mass to become self-sustaining depends on ‘hitting the percolating vulnerable cluster’ at the start.

So why did these two ideas and mini campaigns of the bra color and the green Twitter avatar work so well on Facebook and Twitter. I think the main reason is that campaigns like these lower the threshold (in this case for the idea of activism) for people active in social networks. The campaigns don’t demand much effort to be realized and are potentially aiding an altruistic purpose. There is no personal cost involved to support the cause, just a simple click. This lowering of the threshold was certainly a contributing factor in initiating a global cascade.

It would have been more useful however, if the status updates actually said something about breast cancer and not just the color of a girls bra.

Further Reading:

Watts, D 2003, ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability,’ Six degrees: The science of a connected age, Norton, New York and London, pp. 220-252.

G20 Alternative Media Centre in Toronto

29 Aug

I’ve talked about the network society and the birth of Indymedia in an earlier post. Now I would like to give an update on a more recent initiative of the alternative media community.

As we all know, for many years, G-8 and G-20 summits have been taken as an opportunity by the Global Justice Movement to protest ‘corporate globalization’ and promote the equal distribution of economic resources. At this year’s G-20 summit in Toronto, the Global Justice Movement has been able to mobilize thousands of protesters and asked them to contribute to street reporting using Twitter, Flickr or YouTube and the tag #g20report’. All the user-generated content was aggregated on the website of the G-20 Alternative Media Centre, together with additional news articles.

The website of the G-20 Alternative Media Centre is a prime example of utilizing social media for activism purposes. Through collaboration and the use of a single tag ‘#g20report’, the movement could take full advantage of its decentralized and non-hierarchical network structure, linking all individual efforts and relevant material which was aggregated on a single website and  thus provided deep insights into the protest events across all media forms.

Together with the 2010 People’s Summit which is civil society’s alternative “counter Summit” which happened the week before the  G8 and G20 Summits, the G-20 Alternative Media Centre is an excellent source to educate yourself about the issues that the activists in the streets are so vehemently protesting about.

From mass to network society and the birth of indymedia

20 Aug

I’ve been recently looking at the foundation and development of as part of the research for my other blog on journalism and new media. When reading about the convergence of new levels of social movement and technology that led to the foundation of the Independent Media Center (IMC), it occurred to me that this represented exactly the processes identified by Manuel Castells as causing the emergence of a new form of social organization: the network society.

Castells (2004) identifies three independent processes that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, transforming western civilization from a mass to a network society.

1) The crisis of industrialism, the resulting economic liberal policies that fostered deregulation and liberalization of markets and ultimately led to capitalist globalization.

2) The rise of freedom-oriented social movements, symbolized by the movement opposing the Vietnam War and in later years resulting in the feminist movement, the environmental movement and the anti-globalization movement.

3) The revolution in information and communication-technologies (ICT), most notably the personal computer and the internet.

Now what are the differences between a mass society and a network society in terms of media and how does it relate to the indymedia movement?

To examine the differences I turn to Jan van Dijk, another scholar who has defined the concept of the network society prominantly.  The mass society was defined by ‘social formation with an infrastructure of groups, organizations and communities’ (van Dijk 2006, p. 32). In terms of media that meant access to a limited number of mass media, that were broadcasting in a top-down approach. Power was centralized in a few cultural institutions that occupied the media commons.

Through the advancements in ICT and a growing movement to resist capitalist globalization which had its coming-out party at the anti-WTO protests in Seattle 1999, the indymedia movement was born as a member of this new network society. In the network society, ‘broadcast mass media reaching everyone are accompanied by, and partly replaced by, narrowcast interactive media reaching selected audiences’ (van Dijk 2006, p. 36).

In the words of Sheri Henderson, co-founder of the IMC in Seattle, commenting on the birth of the indymedia movement:

‘The timing was right, there was a space, the platform was created, the Internet was being used, we could bypass the corporate media, we were using open publishing, we were using multimedia platforms. So those hadn’t been available, and then there was the beginning of the anti-globalization movement in the United States. I think it was all of those pieces together’ (quoted in Kidd 2003, p. 59).

I will continue to examine the indymedia movements and its further development in later posts.


Castells M 2004, ‘Informationalism, networks, and the network society: a theoretical blueprint’ in The network society: a cross-cultural perspective, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, pp. 3-45.

Dijk J van 2006, The network society: social aspects of new media, SAGE, Calif, pp. 19-41.

Kidd D 2003, ‘ a new communications commons’, in Cyberactivism: online activism in theory and practice, eds. M McCaughey & MD Ayers, Routledge, New York and London, pp. 47-69

Introduction to Cyberactivsm

17 Aug

Cyberactivsm (also called digital activism or online activism) has gone a long way since its first and widely publicized success at the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle. Around 50,000 concerned citizens were informed and mobilized though the internet to protest various issues and the coming of a new age of activism was announced (Chamberlain 2004, p. 139).

Cyberactivism refers to social movements that are using ‘advanced forms of technology and mass communication as a mobilizing tool and conduit to alternative forms of media’ (Carty & Onyett 2006, p. 229). These information and communication technologies (ICTs) serve both as means and target of protest action and allow citizens to link their efforts globally and form coordinated online movements.

The results are manifold: alternative journalism like indymedia and citizen journalism projects; activists groups such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International using websites, online tools and own social networks; watchdog organizations such as or Reporters Sans Frontières, political bloggers, online charities and digital awareness campaigns.

Cyberactivism can be seen as a ‘symptom’ of the network society, a concept developed by Manuel Castells. According to Castells (cited in Barney 2004, p. 27), ‘the network society … is made up of networks of production, power and experience, which construct a culture of virtuality in the global flows that transcend time and space’. Consequently, cyberactivism-websites on the internet each represent a network of production, power and experience and all of them together form a bigger network of cyberactivism which is part of the even bigger network that we call the ‘World Wide Web’.

In his theories on network society, Castells (cited in Barney 2004, p. 27-32) isolated a number of attributes that together give shape to the network society. The network society is an ‘informational’ capitalist economy; it is organized globally, on the network model; human experience of time and space is displaced in virtuality; power and powerlessness are a function of access to networks and control over flows and finally, the principal source of conflict and resistance is the contradiction between the placeless character of networks and the rootedness of human meaning.

Most of these attributes can equally be found in the concepts of cyberactivism. As Gurak and Logie (cited in McCaughy & Ayers 2003, p. 25) point out, protests, as well as the internet, are ‘always about networks, usually networks of people who have a common interest or concern and come together – whether in a physical place (…) or via a petition or other campaign’.  But despite these common grounds, cyberactivism campaigns have not been united in a single movement. ‘Rather, they are intricately and tighly linked to one another, much as “hotlinks” connect their Web sites on the internet’ (Klein 2002, p. 17).

In the following weeks, this blog will try to present interesting case studies and link these to theories related to cyberactivism, social-movement theory, cultural studies, media studies and cyberculture studies.


  • Chamberlain K 2004, ‘Redefining Cyberactivism: The Future of Online Project,’ Review of Communication, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 139-146.
  • Carty V & Onyett J 2006, ‘Protest, Cyberactivism and New Social Movements: The Reemergence of the Peace Movement Post 9/11,’ Social Movement Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 229-249.
  • Barney D 2004, ‘Network Society,’ in The Network Society, Polity, Cambridge, pp. 5-33.
  • McCaughy M & Ayers M 2003, ‘Cyberactivism – Online Activism in Theory and Practice,’ Routledge, New York.
  • Klein N 2002, ‘Fences and Windows – Dispatches from the Frontline of the Globalization Debate,’ Flamingo, London.