If the readings in past weeks for the most part built up the importance of social media, this week’s readings by Gladwell and Morozov more so than not tear it down. Malcolm Gladwell, writing on the history of social activism in The New Yorker, distinguishes between the bold, enterprising social activists of the 1960s Civil Rights movement and the weak network-building engendered by new media; Evgeny Morozov, commenting on Iran’s so-called “Twitter Revolution” in 2009, dismisses Twitter’s role in the revolution by calling that apellation little more than the result of a game of journalistic telephone.
Gladwell starts his contrast between the Civil Rights brand of activism and today’s (or new media’s) with a recollection of the sit-in movement’s origins in the South. In 1960, Gladwell writes, four students at the black college North Carolina A & T participated in a sit-in in which they refused to leave the whites-only counter of a restaurant in nearby Greensboro. The sit-in – and later renditions of it throughout the South – turned out to be an extraordinarily dangerous venture, as thousands of black activists were shot, beaten and harassed and dozens of black churches were burned down. But the four activists in Greensboro stood their ground because they had strong personal ties – Ezell Blair, one of the protestors, was flanked at the counter by two roommates and a friend from high school.
Such strength of activism, Gladwell and Morozov argue, does not ordinarily come from social networks because members of those networks do not, for the most part, share particularly strong ties. Social networks, Gladwell contends, do not engender activism as much as they lower the threshold of motivation required to participate in a cause – a huge ledge down from the Civil Rights activists who risked their lives and their property for their cause. Morozov corrobates Gladwell’s point about the weakness of social networks for activism. Pointing to the Iranian “Twitter Revolution” – and referring to specifically, it should be noted, repressive environments – Morozov asks, “What do 100 million people invited to join the Facebook group ‘100 million Facebook members for Democracy in Iran’ expect to get out of their membership?” To judge by Morozov’s contention that Twitter only adds to the inaudible noise of an ineffective social media movement, very little.
QUESTION: Did the Occupy Wall Street movement meet Gladwell’s standards for a successful social movement? Was the group hierarchal enough by Gladwell standards, and if not, was that part of the reason that it has floundered? Were there any features of the Occupy movement that would fit under Gladwell’s ideas about the advantages of new media-driven activism?