“Real” Activism: Risks and Ties

Just as previous technological innovations have been discussed, debated, and projected into its future status, social media is the current technological innovation that faces both optimism and criticism. Gladwell argues in “Small Change: Why the Revolution Should Not Be Tweeted” that “real” activism, defined by high-risk activism, is not possible through the weak ties built by social media. I argue that conceptions of “real” activism are changing with the growth of technology, though always dependent on who is using them and for what cause. 

Gladwell states that while “high risk activism is a strong tie phenomenon,” social media consists largely of weak ties and seldom lead to high-risk activism (4). This mirrors a slactivist approach hypothesized by Morozov (13). Both authors suggest that real activism only occurs with people fully committed to a cause, one with “high-risk,” and anything short of that isn’t activism at all but rather “slacitivist” requiring little to no engagement. I argue, that with new technology, this just isn’t necessarily true. Additionally, “high-risk” is relative and Gladwell ignores the idea that the larger the group, the less “high-risk” the action is for all involved. So for the three boys in Greensboro at the lunch counter, their experience was extremely high-risk. For the hundreds joining after, there was slightly less risk involved given the size of the group. 

Recalling “Barack Obama’s Social Media Toolkit” by Lutz, the author advocates for “laddering support through tiers of engagement” (6). In other words, gauging willingness for commitment and only pushing people slightly over their commitment limit. This results in some larger commitments than others, but nonetheless a large group of varying commitments to a cause. In this scenario you haven’t rid the movement of high-risk commitments, in fact that is the core of your group. But now there is a larger group of people willing to give something. This represents the changing dynamics of activism spawning from social media that juxtapose the idea posed by Gladwell and Morozov. 

Though “Iran’s Twitter Revolution” is controversial in and of itself, it appears difficult to say that social media didn’t play a role (Morozov 11). What is clear, however, relates directly to Karpf’s differentiation between tactics and strategy. Social media can and should be used as a tactic for building social movements. But, the overall goals and motivations of the movement, dependent largely on who is using them and for what reasons. In the case of Iran, it isn’t clear what role social media played, but it is clear that it did play a role. In that case, tactically, social media may be used to harness large-scale support and possibly subsequent action. Who knows how many people would have participated in the sit-ins if Twitter had existed.

What factors do you see affecting the role of social media in a social movement landscape? Do you think social media isn’t capable of revolutionary status, or do you think we have not yet harnessed it capabilities correctly? Why? 

This entry was posted in Winter 2012. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “Real” Activism: Risks and Ties

  1. emdobrow says:

    The role of social media in the realm of societal movements is rapidly increasing as it becomes disseminated throughout the globe and its capabilities become increasingly integral to daily life. Morozov and Gladwell seem to discredit the platforms by looking at the relationship between the variables of revolutionary societal changes and social media in a causal way. Because social media and its capabilities are extremely dynamic and have been integrated in our daily activities, the relationship it shares with social activism should be perceived in a similar dynamic manner. The capabilities of social media are often changing and advancing. As presented by Morozov and Gladwell, some scholars argue that it is not being harnessed in the most effective manner to facilitate social change. The failed Iranian Revolution is often cited to substantiate the claim that social media is not accelerating societal changes to the extent that we hoped it would; looking past the surface of the Iranian Revolution, it is evident that one of the reasons societal revolutions whose vehicles to organize a collective is social media fail can be due in part to a government who is as technologically advanced as its citizenry. Compared to the Iranian Revolution, the overthrow of the Tunisian government was mobilized via social media sites such as Twitter. Thus, I do believe that social media and its capabilities is being harnessed in the right manner as evident from the success of the Tunisian people during the outset of the Arab Spring. Furthermore, this success and the juxtaposition of the failure of the Iranian Revolution to the success of the Tunisian revolution highlight that there is more to the relationship between social media and social activism than strong or weak ties.

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