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Malcolm Gladwell, Occupy Wall Street, and Social Media

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Author Malcolm Gladwell argued in a New Yorker article one year ago that social media wouldn't play a significant role in movements like Occupy Wall Street.

CREDIT: AP Photo / Joe Tabacca

I like to imagine that Malcolm Gladwell stuffs his mattress with dollar bills. It’s not some perverse thing—I just think that might soothe the pain of being so very wrong.

Pardon my young-person schadenfreude. But a piece Gladwell wrote last year—in fact, almost exactly a year ago—on the impossibility of social media driving revolutions now seems like a crusty Luddite rant. And, as both someone who constantly streams Twitter and one of those strange kids using said Twitter feed to coordinate an occupation, I’m obligated to note his errancy.

Gladwell’s article, Small Change, was published in the usually unassailable New Yorker, after the brief uprisings in Moldova and Iran but shortly before the arguably more successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Using the Greensboro sit-ins and the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project as examples of successful actions, Gladwell argues that social media is both too decentralized and too impersonal to coordinate social change. Instead, he writes, it is only good for “helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls;” by lauding Internet organizing, we wannabe revolutionaries “have forgotten what activism is.”

Apparently it’s not spending weeks out in a tent in the rain, facing police brutality, arrest, and the challenges of horizontal direct democracy.

The people occupying hundreds of towns and cities across America—and, beginning this past weekend, the world—are organizing in the exact way Gladwell asserted is impossible: Putting out the call on social media sites and creating a massive movement without formal hierarchy or pre-existing frameworks. 

(More Coverage of the 99 Percent Movement.)

According to Gladwell, the failure of social media is that it lacks the personal touch that gives protests staying power. There’s a glint of truth in this, of course: Social media alone cannot drive revolutions. Social change needs, well, social coordination; the view of humans as wholly independent autonomous actors is uncorroborated and myopic. 

But as Gladwell admits, the Internet is great at getting people to show up.

Here in Iowa City, the occupation started as a Facebook invite to a General Assembly; more than 100 people turned up, and many of them continue to sleep outside in the park—or visit, or show up to rallies and educational events. 

Of course, there are the same left-of-center networks there always have been: quiet groundwork in unions, collectives, and issue groups created small organized patches that have been sewn into the broader, wholly organic quilt. But for the most part the demonstrators and protesters are not affiliated with pre-existing organizations, and those organizations certainly don’t serve as official sponsors.

Still, people stick around, in a manner that must prove baffling to Gladwell.

His “weak ties” theory of social media (and Gladwell’s main area of expertise is the coining and redefinition of terms) can’t account for the protesters in New York City and Chicago staring down lines of police officers, locking arms with their social-media-savvy brethren.

According to his ideas that social media ties fragment in the face of danger, the mere threat of brutality—and the gradual wear of time—would have ended these occupations in their infancy.

Instead, the shared videos of police brutality galvanized protesters from Cheyenne to Washington. The movements grew, even with government crackdowns.

Entrepreneur and author John Robb posits a tribal explanation: That the Occupiers, particularly those on Wall Street, have come up with a definite group identity even with the vague anonymizing influence of social media. Others have invoked the French Situationists, or philosopher Hakim Bey’s concept of the “temporary autonomous zone” to see the site of occupation as a unifying force—the emergent solidarity comes from tactics, not previously negotiated relationships.

Gladwell’s piece is arguing against exactly this kind of spontaneous order, which becomes more profound when you realize that Occupy Wall Street’s tactics came about not through top-down planning but through the painstaking democratic process.

Nobody knew what would happen when people showed up on Wall Street, tarp in hand; nobody knew what would happen when they stayed. But the success of the occupations has been a direct result of their ability to shatter the paradigm of weak-tie organizing, to co-opt Gladwell’s term: Protesters figured out that one of their goals was to create the horizontal organization they wanted to see, and they turned toward one another to build those necessary ties.

They also tweeted, and Facebooked, and exploited social media to organize. A lot. The rapid-fire flow of ideas stoked interest, disseminated information, and helped to build a popular myth around the protests.

And Malcolm Gladwell, though a best-selling author, missed the entire point when he asserted that, “the things that [Martin Luther King, Jr.] needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.”

Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.

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