Digital Activism Revisited: Malcolm Gladwell May Be Right for the Wrong Reasons

Digital Activism Revisited: Malcolm Gladwell May Be Right for the Wrong Reasons 2020 - Negosentro
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Negosentro| Digital Activism Revisited: Malcolm Gladwell May Be Right for the Wrong Reasons |by Thomas Phillips | shared from The OSU Blog |

In his article “Small Change, Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” Malcolm Gladwell tells us that the digital activism of the present generation is not strong enough to endure the real-world challenges commonly faced in activist movements. He claims that because social networks do not provide the same support as interpersonal relationships formed between friends and cohorts, they must be weaker. He translates this perceived weakness into a lack of any capability — claiming that “in the outsized enthusiasm for social media… we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

He frames his perception of activism using the Greensboro Four, and their sit-in protests at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. He conjugates their social movement with the violence they encountered, true activism with real risk:

  • “Racial insubordination was routinely met with violence”
  • “The dangers were even clearer…”
  • “Activism that challenges the status quo…is not for the faint of heart”
  • “The civil-rights movement was high-risk activism” (Later in the piece)

He asks the question “What makes people capable of this kind of activism?” Or, to re-situate the question using his previous frame: What makes people take these illegal, violent, and life-threatening risks?

His answer? The participants’ “degree of personal connection to the… movement.”

Up to this point in his article, Gladwell has been fair in describing his own understanding of activism, and how it does or does not function in the digital age. Then he says (in reference to the personal connection needed for “real” activism) “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all.”

In 2010, that claim could have been true. Today, (literally, today) it is not.

In the last 24 hours, protests in Kiev, Ukraine have escalated out of hand. From BBC News:

“At least two people are reported to have died in clashes between police and protesters in the Ukrainian capital Kiev in a third night of violence.

Police stormed barricades built by anti-government protestors in the central square.

Mass demonstrations began in November after President Viktor Yanukovych shunned closer ties with the European Union.

The latest violence was triggered by the introduction of new laws passed last week that criminalise [sic] protests, as Daniel Sandford reports from Kiev.”

To sum up: there have been mass protests in Kiev since November. Last week, the government banned protests, and now more people are protesting, and in turn, dying

You might ask, “Thomas, what does that have to do with *digital* activism?”

And I would show you the introduction to an article published not 20 hours ago (Tuesday, January 21st) by Brian Merchant:

“ ‘Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.’

That’s a text message that thousands of Ukrainian protesters spontaneously received on their cell phones today, as a new law prohibiting public demonstrations went into effect. It was the regime’s police force, sending protesters the perfectly dystopian text message to accompany the newly minted, perfectly dystopian legislation. In fact, it’s downright Orwellian (and I hate that adjective, and only use it when absolutely necessary, I swear).

But that’s what this is: it’s technology employed to detect noncompliance, to hone in on dissent. The NY Times reports that the “Ukrainian government used telephone technology to pinpoint the locations of cell phones in use near clashes between riot police officers and protesters early on Tuesday.” Near. Using a cell phone near a clash lands you on the regime’s hit list” (Emphasis added).

Ukraine’s protests, now under cellphone surveillance. Image: Wikimedia


So, what does this all mean?

In defining activism during class, we agreed that activism was primarily about affecting change. We said that as such, there is a hierarchy of activism. We are able to define the success of activism by the change achieved. However, if we do not want to define success, if we simply want to define activism, what scale do we use?

According to Gladwell, we use Risk. Which takes us back to Kiev.

In class, we discussed the possibility that Gladwell’s thesis doesn’t fit present models. Digital activism is not solely online anymore — the internet, social media, and cell phones have become tools for activists who are marching, side by side, in the streets.

It has also become a tool of exploitation for those, who, seeking more power in a battle against the powerless can turn off the internet, turn off your cell service, or pinpoint your precise protesting location. Brian Merchant says “All of this puts lie to the lately-popular mythology that technology is inherently a liberating force—with the right hack, it can oppress just as easily.”

Although we can say Gladwell was wrong, as we have seen the power of digital activism in the physical world — maybe he was right.

Maybe there is a weakness in utilizing a tool so easily manipulated by the oppressor. Maybe we shouldn’t just “Tweet the change that we wish to see in the world.” Maybe the revolution won’t be tweeted.

Sometimes, it can’t be.

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Great Ideas Worth Executing!
Digital Marketing in a BLINK 2014

For Event Managers, Organizers, Planners, Corporate Communicators, Trade Show Organizers, Marketing/Brand/PR Professionals, Entrepreneurs and Business Owners

March 20-21, 2014
AIM Conference, Makati City, Philippines


Malcolm Gladwell inspired the ‘Digital Marketing In a BLINK Program’. It is a learning event designed to understand concepts/framework, strategies, tools and techniques in digital marketing through the power of quick learning and execution of innovative ideas with disruptive impact.

Digital Marketing in a BLINK 3 – Great Ideas Worth Executing Seminar comes a new line-up of select Industry Experts to share their tips and techniques on Email Marketing, Digital PR, Analytics, Social Media Marketing, and Search Strategies for Events Professionals, Trade Show Organizers, and Business Owners/Entrepreneurs.

Marketing has evolved from a creative process to highly data-driven process. Those involved in organizing and managing events use DIGITAL MARKETING to determine desired results of campaigns and to guide decisions for client targeting, ad spent and investment (allocation of budgets).

Find out how event professionals use of digital marketing tools, tips and techniques, and best industry practices to manage events/trade shows marketing and promotions campaign.


Event Managers, Organizers, Planners, Corporate Communicators, Trade Show Organizers, Marketing/Brand/PR Professionals, Entrepreneurs and Business Owners, CMOs, Brand Marketers, Category Managers, Advertising Managers, Digital Directors, Agencies, Publishers, Media, Telcos, Content Providers, Bloggers, E-Commerce Entrepreneurs, Suppliers, Government, Academe, Digital Marketing Service Providers and those involved in digital marketing and advertising.

Day 1, Thursday, March 20, 2014
Email Marketing, Web Analytics and Digital PR

1. Executing An Effective Email Campaign

Email provides one of the highest ROIs of any digital channel. Learn the step-by-step approach to permission-based email marketing campaign following industry best practices, crafting effective email copy/content that improves conversion, identify important considerations in executing email campaign, how email and social media have strategic alignment, and use to test value proposition.

2. Understanding Web Analytics

Analytics allow marketers to collect relevant data and information to improve digital marketing program executions, site creative content and information architecture. Understand and see how analytics works in your event campaign.

3. Digital PR To Boost Your Events

Understanding the landscape of Digital PR – brands/events can become a content resource for the media (earned media), publish their own news, (owned media/brand/event journalism) and buy space for branded content on news and social sites (paid media). What are the digital PR strategies that can boost your events promotions campaign?

Day 2, Friday, March 21, 2014
Social Media and Search Marketing Strategies

1. How To Execute Social Media Marketing Campaign in FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.

1.1 Sequential Story Telling: How Social Media has transformed the art of story telling

Social media serves as an inexpensive platform for events/brands to implement marketing program. Learn the step-by-step approach on how to execute campaign on social media platforms such as, FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. These social networking websites allow individuals to interact with one another and build relationships. Increased communications foster brand/event awareness and often, improved customer interest, desire and eventually, path to purchase. Know the key metrics of each platform and see if you are right on target with the desired results of your campaign.

2. How To Execute Search Marketing Campaign To Be in the Top Rank

Know the key factors and strategies that work in the event/brand campaign. Search marketing is the process of gaining traffic and visibility from search engines through both paid and unpaid campaign. It encompasses SEO (earning traffic through unpaid or free listings) and SEM (buying traffic through paid search listings). Learn how the PROs are executing their optimization, key wording, linking and listing to drive traffic to event/brand websites.


* * *

Malcolm Gladwell at TED Talks

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