Linux, Lunch Counters, and Lost Cell Phones: Gladwell versus Shirky

Photo by Adam Fagen of Display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History -

Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker this week: “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” is a really compelling read, and a nice antidote to technological determinism in our understanding of social meda (the idea that the new technologies shape behavior and determine outcomes rather than interacting with behavior and both shaping and being shaped by the interaction) but ultimately I think he gets it wrong. Gladwell represents networks of weak ties as an absence of organization incapable of achieving meaningful change, and mistakes what has been done via Twitter and Facebook for all that social media and free/open source approaches could be capable of.

Gladwell’s piece centers on two key arguments. First, he debunks the notion of “twitter revolutions” in Iran and Moldova, noting that in both cases the view from the West at best greatly exaggerated the role of social media if not created it out of whole cloth:

As for Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution, Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist. Nor does it seem to have been a revolution . . . . In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation.

The second, more central argument is that:

there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

Gladwell demonstrates this by contrasting the lunch-counter sit-ins and voter registration drives of the US civil rights movement of the 1960s with the opening anecdote of Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, in which a woman’s lost sidekick is located and returned via social media. Where real activism combines intense ideological commitment and strong ties (this is what drives the civil rights movement), the new faux social media activism relies on networks and weak ties. Participation is high in social media activism specifically because so little is asked of those participating:

Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. . . . 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. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

Or as he more memorably puts it in his concluding salvo:

A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.

But is that all that networked, weak-tie oriented worlds are good at? Gladwell doesn’t mention the key concept of the Coasean ceiling and Coasean floor, or Shirky’s other examples (the lay Catholic organization Voice of the Faithful for example), other than to mention Wikipedia as a successful example of what weak networks are good for:

Wikipedia is a perfect example. It doesn’t have an editor, sitting in New York, who directs and corrects each entry. The effort of putting together each entry is self-organized. If every entry in Wikipedia were to be erased tomorrow, the content would swiftly be restored, because that’s what happens when a network of thousands spontaneously devote their time to a task.

Which, of course, is more or less what Shirky argues about it as well – though with more nuance about wikipedia’s existing control structures. (It’s far from a free for all, as anyone who’s followed the arguments between inclusionists and deletionists or has had a page edit reverted knows). It would be interesting to see what Gladwell would make of Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, or Christopher Kelty’s Two Bits, both of which take a less “popularizing” approach to understanding the key shifts embodied in free software and open source modes of production.

Ultimately I’d say Gladwell mistakes new forms of organization for a complete lack of organization. In trying to define the differences between true activist groups who ferment revolution (high degree of ideological fervor and strong ties) versus faux activism online (weak ties, no significant commitment), Gladwell makes the following comment almost as an aside:

There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Leaving aside for the moment the OSCar project and it’s attempt to design/build an open source car, has Gladwell never heard of Linux, or other free software projects on which large numbers of people collaborate quite effectively and in a self-organizing fashion?

It seems to me that there are many clear coherent design principles in Linux, and that the network of participants – while not organized in a traditional corporate hierarchy – does have a centralized leadership structure and lines of authority. Without knocking the insights of Raymond’s Cathedral and the Bazaar, a less hierarchical organizational framework doesn’t mean no organizational framework. Open Source projects have project leads, committers, associations, and all kinds of other organizing mechanisms.

Further, take a look at an organization like the Debian project (organizational structure). They not only have the core organizational structure to keep the project moving, but a quite rigorous new maintainers process which essentially brings those new maintainers into the culture and clarifies the ideological commitments inherent in the community. Just because online ties don’t resemble the strong ties of the past doesn’t mean they are all weak ties. (See Gabriella Coleman‘s wonderful work on ethics in the Debian community).

Contrast Debian with some large traditional, national charitable organizations where the great majority of those involved are really just voting with their annual donation, but have no real insight into the activities of the organization as a whole. Ultimately, what Gladwell fails to see is what importance the new tools – of which Twitter and Facebook are just the most media-celebrated examples – might have for activists who do understand activism. The tools won’t make committed activists out of the uninterested, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t transform the activism of the committed as well over time.

Is it possible to use social media tools as Gladwell describes, to get high participation rates by asking little of the participants? Of course it is. But it’s also possible to use these tools (and others like, CrabGrass, Drupal, WordPress, etc) to combine together people with high degrees of ideological fervor and a compelling mixture of strong ties and weak ties.

In other words, weak activism (renew your annual membership in the large national organization whose goals you vaguely agree with,, or sign a petition expressing your dislike of something) co-existed with strong activism before the advent of the Internet, and will continue to do so despite it. The more interesting question is what will strong activism groups be able to do more effectively now than they could before.

When strongly committed activists with strong ties to each other are supported and maintained via networks of weak ties and new forms of organization made possible by global scale internet-powered interaction we may well yet see what activism 2.0 looks like.


  1. Great Post, John! A cogent look at what he got right and what he may have got wrong. The part I think a lot of social sector/nonprofit organizations struggle with is how to manage the weak ties while strengthening the stronger ties. And vice versa. In my org, the core of what we do is training and supporting ~80,000 volunteers who have to make a huge commitment to do what they do. But we also need to talk to and gather the support of people who don’t want to be in a deeper relationship. The only new part is the numbers of weka-tied people. 10 years ago they would have no tie at all with us. Now we have people who publicly “like” us, but do almost nothing for our cause above and beyond that.

  2. Indeed- as others have pointed out, for every person who went to participate in lunch counter sit-ins, thousands if not millions more watched on TV, heard about them on radio, and read about them in newspapers. (Just hearing about something in which you know no one directly could be said to be the weakest version of weak ties).

    Over time, that visibility and awareness led to change. Cultivating the percentage of those weak ties which can become stronger ties is one aspect of online activism, as is changing the perceptions/behavior/attitudes of the people who will never have stronger ties to the organization but are open to what you’re trying to promote.

  3. Well said. At this point we are thinking of creating a separate online place for the people who are in a deeper relationship with us in the real world. You talk about different things to the people who are going to sit at the counter than you do to people who will never sit at the counter. Doing it in a way that allows for people to move from mildly interested to fully engaged is one of the challenges.

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