Ilana Simons

Ilana Simons Ph.D.

The Literary Mind

Can The Internet Support or Even Inspire Political Revolution?

How important is friendship in risking your life for revolution?

Posted Oct 01, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell writes beautiful arguments that make good use of oppositions (“It’s not A that’s true, but, believe it or not, it’s the thing you never imagined: It’s B!”). They’re catchy because they’re counterintuitive, and they offer fantastic clarity in the face of confusing ideas.  But at times, Gladwell favors the beauty of his arguments over their accuracy. 

In his latest beautiful if dubious argument, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” an essay in The New Yorker, he describes a few delusions we have about the internet. He argues that even though we celebrate the internet as a catalyst for dramatic political change, it actually marks our falling away from real political investment. 

His argument is largely the following: To make radical political change, you need to commit to a cause among friends; most political revolution includes risking your life, which, history shows, we’re only really likely to do among people we care deeply for.  While we make all sorts of political affiliations with people on the internet, these connections are largely to faceless strangers; and this decrease in real-life social bonds means a decreased incentive to risk our lives for revolution. 

 (In the last paragraphs of his paper, Galdwell also argues that the internet is ineffective for revolution because it disencourages hierarchical leadership, which has also proven important in effective revolutions through history. But here I'll maintain my attention where he maintained his: in this real-life-friends argument.)

In turn, Gladwell takes issue with a few new popular books about the internet, including Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith's The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media to Drive Social Change and Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. These books give us what might be called convincing common wisdom: The internet is a great vehicle for political activism because it gives otherwise-disenfranchised people a voice and a chance to mobilize large forces quickly.

Gladwell counterargues by suggesting that while the internet is a good place to share ideas, encourage group enthusiasm, and even pool material recourses, life on the internet takes us away from the real-life bonds that would keep us deeply committed to risky public behavior. He says that in the past, effective revolutions largely depended on what Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam terms "strong-tie" relationships. A strong-tie relationship is a long-standing social bond, like a friendship from childhood. If you're entering a revolution alongside someone you care for deeply, you're more likely to risk your life or your life savings for the issue at stake.

Gladwell gives interesting examples to illustrate the power of the strong-tie bond in history's revolutions that have mattered, beginning with a description of the Woolworth's counter sit-in in 1960, central to the Civil Rights Movement. The four students who launched the sit-in, Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain, planned it for a month and were understandably terrified, only gradually building courage to begin. They then managed to sit at the counter through a week, during which the football team, the police, and even the KKK came by, threatening their lives. Gladwell suggests that the young boys only found the courage to continue their protest because they had each other, in a mutual commitment was a "deep-tie": They all lived in the same college dorm, and three of them had gone to high school together. It was precisely the accountability to friends that gave them courage to stage an extended protest at the risk of their lives.

In a parallel strong-tie commitment, 70 percent of the revolutionaries in the Red Brigades, an Italian Marxist-Leninist group of the 1970s, had at least one good friend in the organization before joining. A similar statistic underlies recruitment to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. And: The primary factor determining commitment to certain demonstrations in East Germany leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall was the number of friends that revolutionaries had who were also critical of the government. People were more likely to join in the fight if they had the intellectual support of people they knew well. Lastly: One fourth of the people who joined the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project of 1964, a big part of the Civil Rights Movement, dropped out at some point, because the work was so dangerous and unsettling. But it was those people in the movement who joined alongside a long-standing friend who were more likely to stay the course of the Project, while activists making the trip on their own tended to drop out. This was true even if the initial level of expressed enthusiasm was equal. We risk our lives alongside people we're committed to, and not as much with relative strangers.

To continue to make his point, Gladwell offers some other statistics of online complacency: The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, but those members have only donated an average of nine cents each. Perhaps it's easy, he says, to fantasize that you're politically committed when you can do so from the comfort of your bedroom without real risk. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, but they've only given an average of 35 cents each. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, donating an average of 15 cents each. Perhaps the online world is a place to stage your idealized altruism while indulging your decreased investment.

That said, I wonder if Gladwell is cherry-picking his examples. He's probably right that courage requires a good support team, but he's picked examples from the pre-internet days (Red Brigades and Berlin Wall) when you essentially had to find your support team through real-life encounters. In contrast, today, we make many affiliations online, and we have yet to see how powerful the motivations behind those affiliations might be. Maybe in the past I did need ten like-minded friends or cousins to feel intellectually supported in my efforts at the Berlin Wall; but maybe in the future, I'll feel equally supported by 5,000 online acquaintances who have bolstered my politics daily and so given me my core sense of self, my identity worth defending.

After all, isn't the Tea Party an example of an important political movement in which individuals are committing to something new (perhaps many leaving the political party of their friends or parents), largely because of online incentive? It might be that the very nature of the "deep-tie" is changing. As we increasingly develop our identities in the online world, our sense of affiliation to online "friends" might become more central to identity and self-esteem.

In terms of the cherry-picked evidence, I'm also thinking of certain revolutions in history where intellectual commitment to an ideal seemed as "deep" a tie as friends who lived close to you were. I actually don't know what role family and friendship connections played in the Spanish Civil War, but I do know that that war attracted a large number of individual, high-minded revolutionaries from all over the world-people who left their homelands on account of political principle. Perhaps people can in fact commit, body and soul, through an ideological commitment which kindles a large sense of interpersonal commitment through imagined affiliation (the imagined brotherhood behind an idea).

A look at Gladwell's Darfur statistics also suggests some opportunism in picking choice examples. I wonder if he would have found a much greater level of financial commitment if he weren't just polling the Darfur Facebook pages, which are the online wing that's dedicated to casual networking as opposed to financial investment. If he had run his statistics on the Save Darfur Coalition homepage itself, he likely would have found a bigger level of financial commitment.

Of course for anyone who's read my blog in the past, you know I'm a Gladwell fanatic, and in spite of my analysis, I have the sense that a lot of what he's saying is still true: We're detached from real political investments these days because we gratify ourselves with fantasy political commitments online. We can spend 10 hours a day doing "political stuff" online without really risking our lives to change the world. As our face-to-face relationships decrease in prominence in our lives, our incentive to risk our lives among others also decreases. We become blissfully detached from real forms of risky change.

But still not sure. What do you think of Gladwell's critique of the internet "revolution"?