What Malcolm Gladwell Missed About Online Organizing and Creating Big Change

What Malcolm Gladwell Missed About Online Organizing and Creating Big Change

What Malcolm Gladwell Missed About Online Organizing and Creating Big Change

Gladwell’s critique of online organizing mistakes the tools for the strategy—and encourages people to abandon a vital force to defend democracy just when we need it most.


On March 31, 2010, Michelle Ryan Lauto, an 18-year-old student from Bergen County, New Jersey, was seriously pissed off. She had just seen a news report about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s proposal for deep cuts to the state’s education budget, and she knew that would mean fewer teachers, more crumbling buildings, and losses for the sports teams, arts and music programs that were already just barely scraping by. "The youth who will be effected by all these cuts need to rise up and do something," Michelle wrote on Facebook.

Realizing that the same Facebook event feature that her friends used to coordinate house parties could be used to organize a protest, Michelle posted a Facebook event calling for a mass student walkout on April 27. And then she invited her friends.

By April 24, RSVPs had grown from a few hundred to over 5,000. Just two days later, sign-ups surged past 16,000. Nervous school officials tried to intimidate the students, threatening suspension, criminal charges and the banning of students from graduation.

These threats compounded an already tense relationship between Newark’s youth—over 80 percent of whom are black or Hispanic—and the local police department. Only a few weeks earlier, three undercover Newark police officers were caught on tape savagely beating 15-year-old African-American student Travis Rettrey. As they weighed whether or not to take the risk of walking out, images of Rettrey’s beating were still fresh in many students’ minds.

But Michelle and her fellow students were not deterred. On the morning of April 27, thousands of students took to the streets across the state. In the small town of Maplewood, 200 students walked out of Columbia High School waving homemade signs with slogans such "We love our teachers" and "We are the future." At Montclair High School, nearly half of the entire 1,900-strong student body gathered outside and chanted "No more budget cuts."

In downtown Newark, a large crowd of students faced down a hostile ring of mounted police to swarm the steps of City Hall, chanting,  "Save our schools!" The walkouts made headlines throughout New Jersey, and generated significant press coverage nationwide.

"All I did was make a Facebook page," Michelle told the New York Times. "Anyone who has an opinion could do that and have their opinion heard."

* * *

Tools that enable ordinary citizens to catalyze collective action have never been more urgently needed for the survival of our democracy. January’s Citizens United Supreme Court ruling cleared corporations to secretly spend unlimited billions to swing elections through shadowy front groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. Not surprisingly, the 2010 elections shattered all previous midterm spending records.

This massive influx of corporate money is tearing through our democracy like a wildfire. Concerned citizens need to smartly utilize every resource we can find to help beat back the blaze. And that’s why Malcolm Gladwell’s October 4 New Yorker piece, "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," which dismisses the role of online organizing in driving any significant progressive social change, has raised a serious alarm.

Gladwell examines the grassroots tactics that have historically triggered major political change, and the organizing structures that made these tactics possible. He concludes that online organizing has no role in facilitating comparable activism today. "The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient," Gladwell writes. As he argues, all Internet-enabled activism only "makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact."

Gladwell’s article has stirred up a lively debate amongst technology and social-change thinkers. But many of Gladwell’s central arguments remain unanswered.

In The Atlantic, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone made a strong argument for the value of free information flow, especially when defying government repression. But his depiction of "leaderless, self-organizing systems" misses Gladwell’s challenge to identify the role for these new tools when central leadership is required.

Nancy Scola, writing on Tech President, sensibly asks why we would assume that the activist tactics of today would resemble those of the past. But this dodges Gladwell’s underlying argument, which is not that we should copy previous tactics but rather that we should learn the principles of organizing that enabled their success and apply them today.

Frequent Nation contributors Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith offer a strong point-by-point deconstruction on the Huffington Post of Gladwell’s analysis of civil rights-era activism—but stop short of offering an alternative theory of how the tactics he cites actually did contribute toward progress and how modern tools can support a comparable strategy today.

In fact, Gladwell’s argument is dangerous precisely because it is based on a keen analysis of how big change has in fact happened—and how new technologies are often used in ways that instead create "small change"—which is not threatening to the major injustices we still seek to upend. But to conclude on this basis that online organizing can’t contribute to big change is akin to watching a house burn down near a fire hydrant that some kids have unscrewed to play in the water—and therefore deciding that all fire hydrants are useless for fighting fires.

The Internet functions very much like a hydrant. Its only promise is a powerful flow of information that enables learning and collaboration. This resource stream can lead to either revolutionary change or recreational noise. When properly understood and deployed, online organizing allows modern activists to employ time-honored strategies while aiming for the big changes our times require. To answer Gladwell’s challenge, we must understand how.

* * *

Gladwell’s indictment of online organizing is based on two primary arguments.

First is the idea that online organizing taps weak relationships, not strong ones, and thus cannot create the level of solidarity needed for high-risk, high-impact tactics. Second is the contention that social media are antithetical to hierarchy and discipline, which in turn are necessary for successful activism. On both counts, Gladwell suffers a serious misunderstanding of how people actually use online tools—and confusion about the theory of change behind the historical tactics he cites as well as their modern equivalents.

Gladwell begins with the reasonable contention that challenging any entrenched power structure involves a willingness to engage in "high-risk activism." He backs this up with some iconic examples from the civil rights movement, focusing especially on the four African-American students, good friends since high school, who famously sat down at a "whites only" Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960. The student’s "strong-tie" connection to each other, Gladwell argues, fostered the bravery they needed to face significant personal risk for the cause they shared.

Online organizing, he asserts, cannot play a comparable role because "the platforms of social media are built around weak ties." Twitter, says Gladwell, is "a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met" and Facebook as a tool for "efficiently managing your acquaintances." It is true that both platforms can function this way. But, critically, they also allow people to communicate and collaborate with entire networks of close friends much faster than we’ve ever been able to before.

Consider the story of the New Jersey walkouts. In the final days and hours before the event, many students were emboldened to face the risk of serious discipline at school, as well as possible confrontation with a hostile police force, when they saw their real-life close friends RSVP or post in favor of the event on Facebook—and they knew they’d be in it together. Social media can’t replace the power of real friendship, but it can enhance the motivational utility of pre-existing strong-tie relationships by enabling the rapid diffusion of important information through those same strong-tie networks at critical moments of choice.

Gladwell also misses the way social media have radically changed the relationship between individuals and our weak-tie social networks. The opinion of circles of acquaintances has always had a huge influence on any given individual’s behavior, but the advent of social media means the opinions held within weak-tie networks are now far more accessible and interactive than ever before. Irrespective of their online or offline conversations with close friends, the students at Columbia High school in Maplewood, New Jersey, could watch from phones and computers as their acquaintances decided to join the walkout. As the decision to participate gained steam and became the norm, the students could earn increasingly powerful social credit by broadcasting their endorsement and choice to join in.

By making it possible for just about anyone to receive and broadcast information about personal choices from just about anywhere, social media make weak-tie networks a far more focused and powerful source of social normalization than ever before—and when what’s socially "normal" is taking courageous political action, weak-tie networks can indeed be a source of significant courage.

Gladwell bases his claim on extensive research on the role of strong-tie networks motivating risky choices among civil rights activists. But if that same research were conducted today, the new power of weak-tie networks would undoubtedly be discovered playing a prominent role in enabling the exactly the same risks.

Lastly, Gladwell’s argument for the primacy of strong-tie relationships (and the resultant uselessness of online organizing) omits the strategic context that made the very tactics he cites effective—both those in 1960s and their modern equivalents today. High-risk, strong-tie sit-ins were not successful in isolation. After all, the strategy was never to end Jim Crow through protesters personally filling every segregated seat in the South.

Effective vanguard risk-takers were successful because they set an example of principled defiance, inspired others to follow suit and helped ensure that the stories and imagery from these episodes were broadcast across the region and nation. News coverage would then catalyze more activism, which would in turn generate more stories, and cumulatively help shift public opinion about the civil rights struggle itself—with large-scale political and legislative consequences.

Gladwell notes the incredible success of the Greensboro sit-in as a catalyst for other, similar protests in Winston-Salem, Durham, Charlotte and beyond. What he doesn’t discuss is how press coverage, not strong-tie bonds, fueled that spread. As sociologists Kenneth T. Andrews and Michael Biggs observe in their 2006 Sociological Review article "The Dynamics of Protest Diffusion: Movement Organizations, Social Networks, and News Media in the 1960 Sit-Ins," "There is a surprising lack of evidence, however, for social networks acting as channels for the diffusion of protest among cities." Instead, the protesters, "predominantly college students, initiated sit-ins because they were inspired by previous sit-ins in other cities. Information about events elsewhere came primarily from news reports."

Gladwell further cites the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s to establish the importance of strong ties and risk-taking. But these activists, too, well understood that their direct work in the South was just one link in the strategic chain. As Stanford historian Clayborne Carson notes in his book, In Struggle, "The first freedom riders left Washington on May 4th in two busses—with reporters on board to assure press coverage." (Emphasis added.)

What Gladwell misses entirely is that modern examples of good online organizing almost always involve an equally multi-faceted interplay between clusters of strong-tie risk-takers and dissemination strategies that catalyze more activism, expand the story and heighten the impact.

Consider the case of Cindy Sheehan, the youth minister turned antiwar activist from Vacaville, California. Sheehan’s son, Specialist Casey Sheehan, was killed in action in Iraq on April 4, 2004. The loss drove Sheehan to speak out publicly against the ill-conceived war that took her son’s life.

On August 6, 2005, Sheehan and a small group of close allies set up a rough encampment a few miles down the road from President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Though faced with daily heckles and threats, Sheehan declared she would stay at "Camp Casey" until she was granted an honest conversation with the president about why he had gone to war, and what it would take to bring that war to an end.

After an initial media buzz, Sheehan’s story might well have faded away. Instead, through the strategic use of online organizing, supporters nationwide sustained and broadened the impact of her campaign. MoveOn.org, whose members had long opposed the war, sent a series of mass e-mails inviting supporters to use online event organizing tools to amplify Sheehan’s powerful message through simultaneous solidarity rallies. On August 17, over 200,000 MoveOn members and other progressives organized and attended 1,627 "Meet with Cindy" vigils across all fifty states.

Many rallies featured local bereaved parents or returning soldiers. Local organizers pitched their events to thousands of news outlets, offering a local hook for retelling Sheehan’s story and covering the broader narrative of growing resistance to the war.

The new wave of coverage and on-the-ground organizing momentum breathed life back into the flagging antiwar movement. As we’ll see, the organizational and political boost helped turn around public opinion on the war and drive Bush’s party out of power in Congress for the first time in twelve years.

Gladwell argues that those who find real power in online tools "have forgotten what activism is." On the contrary, it rather seems that Gladwell has misrepresented how activism succeeds.

* * *

Gladwell’s second major critique of online organizing is that it is too difficult to control. Citing the "military" precision of initiatives like the Montgomery bus boycott, he argues that any organizing structure capable of delivering sustained, strategic engagement requires a centralized hierarchy. The tools of online organizing fall short, he argues, because "Facebook and the like are tools for building networks" in which "decisions are made through consensus."

It is true that online tools can be used to facilitate leaderless, network-based activity. (Although, as Biz Stone illustrates, that too can be a vital activist resource.) But for the purposes of organizing, they are far more commonly used to extend the reach of a more traditional hierarchical model, fully conducive to central planning.

Barack Obama has 15.7 million Facebook friends (technically, people who "like" his page) and 5.9 million Twitter followers. These social media contacts do not "come to decision through consensus" about anything. They are essentially subscribing to a dedicated broadcast channel that the president and his staff at the Democratic Party run as part of an integrated communications and organizing plan.

The morning of October 12, as a random example, the Barack Obama Facebook post and tweet read, "We need to fight millions of dollars of special-interest ads with millions of voices. Help call voters tonight: http://OFA.BO/ZckKYW." The link led to a personalized page where volunteers could find a unique list of targeted voters to call in key Congressional races. This is complex, centrally planned campaign activity. The same is true of a large e-mail list and set of web-based organizing tools, which are still by far the most common and effective setup for large-scale online organizing. The broadcast channels of social network streams and e-mail lists differ from traditional broadcast mechanisms in that they directly facilitate sharing and coordinated action—but they are not inherently leaderless or chaotic.

It is, however, important to remember that the while the Internet is great at enabling action through information-sharing, it is quite poor at pushing people to do anything they do not want to do. Without the immediate social pressure of in-person conversations or even the dedicated visual real estate of a television ad, it’s almost always easier for potential activists reached online to dismiss an unwelcome call to arms than it is for them to change their minds.

That’s why successful online organizing is often based on a "member service" approach, in which campaign guidance emerges from membership through carefully measured response metrics and formal input channels. This does not, however, hamper planning. Quite the contrary, if managed intelligently, it can greatly increase member buy-in—enabling the leadership to engage in far more ambitious planning than would otherwise be possible.

In early 2006, MoveOn members wanted to transform the Sheehan vigils and other issue campaigns into real electoral consequences. So the MoveOn staff developed an ambitious plan to place six million volunteer turnout calls into crucial swing districts nationwide. This "Call for Change" proposal was expensive, and most importantly, would require enormous volunteer participation to pull off, so the question went to the membership in a binding vote on whether or not to proceed. The plan was approved overwhelmingly.

In the months leading up to the November elections, MoveOn members logged more than 7 million highly targeted turnout calls, reaching significantly more voters than the margin of victory in thirty-two states and Congressional districts. On November 7, 2006, Democrats took back the Senate and the House—and did so on a newly antiwar platform.

Gladwell’s analysis also fails to take into account the complex overlap between the activities spurred by decentralized networks and hierarchical systems—both historically and today.

The leaders of the Greensboro sit-in did participate in national organizations like the NAACP Youth Council, but their now-legendary sit-in was not centrally orchestrated. As Carson notes, the entire event was "planned the previous night"—by the students themselves.

We’ve seen how regional and national participation was triggered by media reports, but even local participation grew by activating informal networks. In Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch describes the immediate aftermath of the first sit-in, "the four instantly famous students on the campus of North Carolina A&T were meeting with elected student leaders and rumors spread that others were volunteering to join them in the morning. With telephones buzzing between campuses, word flashed that even some white students from Greensborough College wanted to sit in with them."

Compare this to the New Jersey Star Ledger description of the morning of the student walkouts: "The walkout was scheduled to start at 1 p.m., but when students at Weequahic High School walked out early, word spread like wildfire that the protest had begun. ‘Phone calls, texts, Twitter, Facebook, everything,’ said Shabazz senior Donald Jackson, 17, who was leading a march of fellow students down Broad Street.’ "

Both vignettes describe a fundamentally network-driven expansion. But the Greensboro sit-in fed into a sustained national movement, while the New Jersey walkout became a largely isolated event that has not yet reversed the proposed education cuts. Why?

In large part, because the civil rights movement did in fact have a national, hierarchical infrastructure to grow, sustain and guide the new waves of informally catalyzed activism. The New Jersey walkout did not.

But thanks to smart online organizing, many modern campaigns—from Cindy Sheehan’s to Barack Obama’s—do.

* * *

The imperative posed by the approaching firestorm of corporate spending is not simply to defend online organizing—but to understand it thoroughly and use it wisely. This means addressing weaknesses just as much as it means identifying strengths.

Gladwell’s warning that Internet-enabled activism "makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact" is wrong only in its absolutism—the phenomenon he’s describing is a real, growing and serious problem.

Activist Jake Brewer, in a recent excellent piece on Huffington Post, posed this response to the Small Change debate: "Both sides are missing a key point: the biggest problem isn’t the connectivity of citizens to each other, it’s in the last mile of turning millions of new citizen ‘voices’ into anything Capitol Hill can actually use."

Brewer notes the way many online actions directed at Congress are caught in byzantine electronic delivery systems and never make a real impression on their target. His argument leaves out the role of constituent phone calls, which are usually much more carefully tracked than electronic signatures, and much harder to fake. Organizing for America supporters, for example, placed over 1.2 million constituent phone calls in favor of health reform last year, providing an unmistakable counterweight to Tea Party hysteria. And direct Congressional advocacy is, as the earlier stories illustrate, just one of many ways online tools can help citizens pressure—or replace—our representatives.

But the heart of Brewer’s point is dead on: a glut of unverifiable online petition signatures e-mailed into the black hole of an unsorted Congressional inbox is not effective advocacy. Far worse, many online petitions are never delivered, and are little more than disingenuous lures to build a fundraising base.

This is no knock against online fundraising—the rapid aggregation of small-dollar donations is one of the last meaningful equalizers in the era of unlimited corporate election spending. And online petitions, when properly sorted and actually delivered, can still be at the foundation of accessible communication between citizens and representatives. But the moment an organization’s "list" becomes an asset to exploit and not a community to empower, supporters are pushed towards a cynical disengagement that our democracy can ill afford.

Thankfully, as lists grow and Facebook friends multiply, so does the capacity for evaluating and improving online organizing. Groups like the New Organizing Institute (NOI) and Citizen Engagement Laboratory now offer a range of excellent trainings, evolving curricula and project incubation resources. NOI, for instance, convenes an annual "Roots Camp" where practitioners honestly share results and refine strategy. At the last gathering, the winner of the "Campaigner of the Year" award, Adam Green, aptly reminded the crowd to connect low-bar tactics that fuel growth (like petitions) with high-impact deliveries that translate supporters’ voices into focused influence on key decision makers.

Believing in the potential of online organizing requires practitioners to constantly push ourselves to live up to it.

* * *

Gladwell notes that everything the student activists of the early 1960s achieved they did "without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter." True enough. But throughout their struggle, these brave, scrappy innovators made the most of every tool at their disposal. They knew the stakes were too high, and the odds too long against justice, to abandon any resource that could strategically advance their cause.

If they could have supplemented the news reports and phone calls that helped mobilize thousands in mere days with an e-mail list and event-planning tool that might mobilize millions in mere hours—there’s little doubt they would have taken their best shot.

The stakes are no lower today, and the odds are just as long. We can feel the heat of the corporate-cash wildfire. But this not the time to despair, romanticize the past or cast aside any tool that can help beat back the flames.

This is the time to tap into the hydrant and carefully, strategically, aim at the blaze.

Author’s Note: Tate Hausman, Paul Adler and Ben Wikler contributed to this article.

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