Why the “how” of social organizing matters and how Gladwell’s latest contrarian missive falls short

In his latest missive about the role of social media in political movements, Malcolm Gladwell makes two points: one so trivial to be barely worth dismissing and another one which is important, utterly wrong, and worth engaging with.

First, he correctly points out that the French Revolution occurred without Twitter or Facebook. Good to know.

Counterfactuals can be useful when deployed with care but this one is surely not meant seriously. In fact, it is so unserious that Twitter’s 140 character limit is more than enough and I have nothing beyond my first tweet on the subject: Humans also lived through the Pleistocene — is everything since then irrelevant?

The second point he makes is that the “why” of social movements is a lot more important then the “how”:

“But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.”

Not only is this wrong, it is the opposite of the thesis of his earlier, substantive New Yorker piece where he argued for how overreliance on social media made modern forms of organizing less effective. Gladwell was for the importance of the “how” before he was against it. I understand the appeal of being a contrarian. But one needs a little more substance to explain this kind of u-turn against oneself within a few months.

The “how” of social organizing matter because means of connectivity impact the nature of a movement, the chance for its success, the tactics it can adopt–which in turn, impact its character–, the roles in can play, and the measures the state can deploy against it. All of these shape the nature, outlook and the reach of the movement.

For example, in his earlier piece, Gladwell argued that social media does not support the kind of strong ties which he claimed formed the basis of high-risk tactics such as the lunch-counter sit-ins. Again, leaving aside my disagreements with this claim, it is certainly true that the composition of a movement impacts its nature, and the means of connectivity used in its formation impact its composition. (Let me note the disagreement briefly: my and others’ extensive research on this topic find that while social media do support weaker ties more effectively compared to some earlier forms of communication, this does not appear come at the expense of strong ties. On the contrary, most people use social media to keep strengthen their bonds with strong as well as weak ties and the relationship between the two is not one of opposition but of complementarity and continuum. That is not to say that the rise of social media has not been disruptive at a societal level–rather, the effect is complicated and not the simple one way dilution of strong ties some critics claim. I wrote more about this here.)

Let’s take a specific look at how the “how” or organizing appears to have had an impact in the latest events in Tunisia and Egypt.

1- Both of these movements have arisen without being directed by a well-defined political party and are not expressed through a well-defined programme. This is both their strength and their weakness. This trend of “non-political” politics precedes the spread of the Internet but has clearly accelerated along with the spread of the Internet and is in direct contrast with social movements of early 20th century.

2- These protests were first kindled through Facebook and other social media which are  integrated into rhythms of mundane sociality. This means that rather than being directed at first by a well-defined group of activists who were able to reach only other politically-motivated compatriots, the dissent and the protests propagated through ordinary social networks which, in turn, ensures that the movement is broad-based. Consequently, both the Tunisian and the Egyptian protests have so far been able to avoid balkanization that plagues opposition movements in similar situations.

3- Both movements have so far only been able to express straightforward demands. “Out with the dictator, in with the elections.” (Similarly, other movements of this kind have sprung up in reaction to stolen elections). This is partly because there is no political leadership with whom there could be negotiations, no programme which outlines a list of demands, no spokespeople who can clarify and expand upon issues. While this seems utopian, and certainly has positive sides, it introduces weaknesses–especially by constricting the demands to the absolute minimum common denominator.

Lack of leadership and definition also opens up movements to cooptation and confusion. If Mubarak says he is leaving in July is that good enough? What kind of elections? What kind of freedoms? What if he is replaced by a strongman who is not a relative? It remains to be seen if the newfound dynamism in Egyptian and Tunisian societies can grow beyond “dictator out.”

4- The specific kind of social-media assisted movements are most likely to erupt in situations where there is already widespread dissent and a fairly-clear problem, i.e. a dictatorship, stolen elections or an authoritarian, corrupt regime like those of Egypt and Tunisia. In other words, social media is best at solving a societal-level prisoner’s dilemma in which there is lack of knowledge about the depth and breadth of the dissent due to censorship and repression and a collective-action barrier due to suppression of political organization. (I wrote more about this here)

5- Thus, social media probably has so far been best at triggering a “empire has no clothes” moment. The role such tools play in situations where there is polarization and strong vested-interests on multiple sides remains unclear. In polarized situations, this dynamic might increase polarization through the facilitation of the “dailyme” in which people filter out dissent from their exposure stream and retreat into epistemic enclosures of the like-minded.

6- To highlight the importance of “how” let’s take Gladwell’s favorite tool, the counterfactual, and imagine a movement that was organized in Tunisia the old-fashioned way, i.e. through building of a political opposition party in a repressive regimes. First, the movement would likely only spread through the most-committed dissidents whose numbers are never large and are easy-pickings for police states. Evgeny Morozov repeatedly highlights how social media increases state capacity for state to surveillance. That is certainly worth considering. However, as I argued here, surveillance is not that useful when the opposition activity is completely entangled with everyday sociality of millions of people and when dissent is widespread.

Thus, our word-of-mouth movement would struggle to grow person-by-person and would be easily outmatched by the state security apparatus. It might be able to put together brave and small demonstrations here and there—the news of which would likely never travel beyond the lonely corner in which they were staged. Even if they managed to get some critical traction in a locality, the state could more easily counter, encircle and repress because unlike the current protests in Egypt and Tunisia, which started rapidly and emerged through a broad-base all at once, authoritarian regimes have a pretty advanced-arsenal against old-fashioned political organizing.

The “how” of organizing often turns into “how” of governance. Our word-of-mouth movement would likely have to remain secretive and suspicious. Does anyone think that it is completely coincidence that successful revolutions by secretive movements often turn into paranoid governments? If for no other reason, this is why the “how” is crucially important.

But, it is true counterfactuals are always a little shaky. But we do have a test case. In 2008, protests led by the local trade-union broke out in the Tunisian mining-town of Gafsa over corruption, unemployment and nepotism. Did you know about them? Neither did I, until recently. However, the story is familiar. Tunisian government forces encircled the town, brought in the army when the police proved unable to contain the unrest, kicked out and jailed the journalists trying to cover the story. Isolated and censored, the protests dissipated. (See here, here and here).

Is the spread and integration of social media into everyday rhythms of Tunisian (and global) populace between 2008 and 2011 a factor in why the world has barely heard of Gafsa while Sidi Bouzid is nearly a household name around the globe? Obviously, there cannot be a definitive answer.  However, this is surely worth exploring and a striking example of the “how” of social movements has such profound consequences beyond being fodder for contrarian missives about their irrelevance.

P.S. Edited because there were two points marked as number four. Doh!
PPS I recommend two more excellent pieces with further thoughts on this topic. Here‘s the one by Dave Parry who makes some some similar arguments and extends the discussion with his usual intellectual firepower. And here‘s a great post David Weinberger who’s just had enough!

18 thoughts on “Why the “how” of social organizing matters and how Gladwell’s latest contrarian missive falls short

  1. Rahul Mahajan

    Excellent points, although I’m not sure Gladwell’s latest is worth any thought at all.

    A couple of additional thoughts:

    People aren’t paying enough attention to the role of Internet and satellite TV in making sure that news about police and military violence and atrocities get out to the world, and how this fact in turn restrains the crackdown. The backwater town of Suez early on had over 30 killed, but this occasioned much less attention than the smaller number killed in the fighting over Tahrir Square the past couple of days. A movement that triumphs even against massive violence is shaped by the process, in ways that usually don’t bode well for future political development.

    Focusing like Gladwell does on how protesters communicate with each other misses out on what is probably the most important consideration: recruitment. Modes of recruitment greatly influence how a political organization develops. Had Gladwell read more carefully the social-movements literature he cited in his original piece, he would have learned that, although recruitment for the Freedom Rides happened through strong and well-established personal networks, the primary way the lunch-counter sit-ins spread was through radio and TV. Now, why is it that protesting in Egypt, despite the very high risks, is more like the sit-ins than the Freedom Rides? Perhaps someone will figure it out in the near future.

  2. Wessel van Rensburg

    You ask, “Is the spread and integration of social media into everyday rhythms of Tunisian (and global) populace between 2008 and 2011 a factor in why the world has barely heard of Gafsa while Sidi Bouzid is nearly a household name around the globe? Obviously, there cannot be a definitive answer.”

    Consider some evidence of the wave of social media technologies that spread from the time of the Gafsa incidents to when the protests exploded in December 2010. This reference is from the 3rd of September 2008 – Gafsa was in August I think – when Ben Ali unbanned Facebook – probably a huge strategic mistake:

    “About 28 thousand people, out of Tunisia’s over two million Internet users, are registered users of Facebook.”

    Of course the number of Tunisian Facebook users in January 2011 counted more than 1,900,000.


  3. zeynep Post author

    @Rahul: That is a very good point about recruitment and also an important correction to the Greensboro narrative.

    @Wessel: Thank you! I was looking for that number. Amazing diffusion and a very interesting case study. What is your source for current number of users? I have seen different numbers.

  4. rjh

    I hate to have to agree with Gaddafi, but you cannot ignore Al Jazeera. The impact of having a large credible independent Arab news source is huge. It is having effects all over North Africa and the Middle East. It interacts with the newer social media in a wide variety of ways, so don’t ignore it.

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  6. Wessel van Rensburg

    Its quite easy to get the Facebook numbers for a country. Sign into Facebook, scroll down to the footer and click on Advertising. Then click on Make an Ad. Pretend to place an add. If you don’t narrow down the demographics (select male, female, all ages) and select Tunisia, you can currently advertise to –

    “Estimated reach
    2,068,320 people
    who live in Tunisia”

    I tried this on the 16th of January and if my memory severs me correct I got 1,960,000 users.

    I’s also interesting to note that Facebook was translated into French on March 10th 2008. As this blog posts notes, translation lead to usage spikes in certain countries like Chile. And it would not surprise me if that is one of the reasons why so many Tunisians joined Facebook between September 2008 and Decembers 2010.


  7. Freon Asmus

    I agree with Gladwell. All you have to do is reflect back upon how the manic SXSW pukes abandoned the Iran protesters within a few weeks. Now those hopefuls in Iran, who took to the streets after the encouragement of the weakly tied social narcissists in the USA, are spending the rest of their lives in jail.

    Good job, freaky shallow twitterers.

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  10. Wessel van Rensburg

    Freon, did you actually read what Zeynep wrote?

    Point 5 above applies clearly to Iran:

    “Thus, social media probably has so far been best at triggering a “empire has no clothes” moment. The role such tools play in situations where there is polarization and strong vested-interests on multiple sides remains unclear. In polarized situations, this dynamic might increase polarization through the facilitation of the “dailyme” in which people filter out dissent from their exposure stream and retreat into epistemic enclosures of the like-minded.”

    Anyhow, I put my two cents here:


  11. Guillermo Quijano

    Superb post!
    Just made me remind about Benkler:
    “Technology alone does not, however determine social structure. The introduction ofr print in China and Korea did not induce the kind of profound religious and political reformation that followed the printed Bible and disputations in Europe. But technology is not irrelevant, either. Luther’s were not the first disputations nailed to a church door. Print, however, made it practically feasible for more than 300,000 copies of Luther’s publications to be circulated between 1517 and 1520 in a way that earlier disputations could not have been. Vernacular reading of the Bible became a feasible form of religious self-direction olny when printing these Bibles and making of them avalible to individual households became economically feasible, and not when all copyist were either monks or otherwise dependent on the church. Technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice. Some things become easier and cheaper, others harder and more expensive to do or to prevent under different technological conditions.” (BENKLER, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks. p 31.)
    Greetings from far south!

    1. Liz McLellan

      I’ve never understood this impulse to attack tools. For all the reasons you suggest social media is something quite more than a just a tool…

      But I cannot imagine Gladwell or others attacking the cell phone, the copier, the fax, the pen or the pair of shoes with the same vigor. I suppose it’s new and people think they understand the implications…You are one of the few folks that’s clearly thinking seriously about them…

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