Is Internet activism possible?

October 14, 2010


Malcolm Gladwell had a recent article in the New Yorker that examined “Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” Now, I’m not incredibly familiar with Gladwell, although I have seen him speak (and enjoyed his talk) and in general have a good opinion of his work. But I am very interested in whether and how the web in general, and creating things on the web specifically, can in fact be a deep form of activism. I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, debating its usefulness, but the number of people (including folks who I respect and love) who seem to take his argument more seriously than I think it deserves has continued to increase.

The broad point of his article (which you should read for yourself) compares the civil rights activists of the 60s and their amazing bravery and protests with the ease of clicking and tweeting things, without doing anything else, that often seems to be the extent of online activism. If you know me, you’ll probably not be surprised that my initial reaction to his article was that he is simultaneously right and wrong. Again, to an extent I agree with him and think his point is essential for many people to see. But I’m of the opinion that he’s also wrong.

Anil Dash, consistently one of the best bloggers of any kind, wrote a response. In it, he says this:

However: There are revolutions, actual political and legal revolutions, that are being led online. They’re just happening in new ways, and taking subtle forms unrecognizable to those who still want a revolution to look like they did in 1965. Gladwell is absolutely right to say that political action today takes place in the form of many smaller, simpler steps than it did when one used to have to put livelihood, liberty, or even life on the line to make change happen. That doesn’t mean it’s ineffective, just that it’s a million small protests instead of one visible act. For me, it’s a form of protest that feels much more Asian in its methods, with a steady trickle of small rebellions instead of the traditional western model of the visible, violent, aggrieved uprising.

This, I think, is the key: there is the potential for activism to occur online, and it is happening, but it won’t always look like activism has in the past.

Gladwell’s article suggests that the activists of earlier movements like the Civil Rights movement, among others, were activists because they protested, sat-in, endured violence, and were highly committed and personally connected to others in the movement. It’s certainly true that they did all of these things, and that in doing so they changed the world. But I question whether that is really the root of activism. Lately I’ve been fascinated reading Martin Luther King’s A Testament of Hope, which collects a large number of his writings, speeches, and articles, and there’s a massive section where he discusses his own and the movement’s philosophy of nonviolence.

Never does he indicate that protests and boycotts, though useful, were at the heart of the activism that he and others engaged in. In fact, the opposite is true:

One march is seldom successful, and as my good friend Kenneth Clark points out in Dark Ghetto, it can serve merely to let off steam and siphon off the energy which is necessary to produce change. However, when marching is seen as a part of a program to dramatize an evil, to mobilize the forces of a good will, and to generate pressure and power for change, marches will continue to be effective.

I’m of the opinion that this same argument can and should be made for things like social media. Pete Rollins is one who, today, is often reminding us that we can use social media, buy fair trade stuff, and do other low-risk things while still not accomplishing anything in ourselves or in society at large. While it was certainly more dangerous than anything most of us do, King is clear that even the marches and sit-ins and boycotts and protests (which he talks about in the same section) could have the same effect if they were not viewed as part of a more holistic and sustained thing, in his case using the philosophy of nonviolence in sustained ways.

Here’s where my thoughts are, at this point: social media is not the root of activism today any more than the marches were in King’s day. Gladwell is smart enough to know that this is the case, and I think he’s going the way of cheap pageviews from sensational articles by ignoring it. The root of activism today needs to be the same as it was then: a robust philosophy of change in souls and change in lives, seeing that the end does not justify but is inherent within the means we use (as King said in defense of nonviolence), which can bring those who resist along by changing enemies into parts of a beloved community and the apathetic into the passionate.

If the end is inherent within the means, and I believe it is, we should indeed question what we’re doing (and what we’re trying to do) when we tweet things, click Facebook’s Like buttons, and donate to the things that get through the incessant flow of stuff that comes at us, but we should not resist doing those things simply because we’re not getting beaten and jailed for doing them. We should instead see what we’re trying to do when we do them, and if we haven’t already (which in most cases we haven’t, and are just throwing various social media options at the wall to see what sticks just like the rest of the online world does) we should try to get to the bottom of it and discover a core philosophy like King did, and use the right sustained methods to take us there.

This is the important thing that all of us in this discussion need to understand: social media is not the end of what we’re doing, and it’s not the core philosophy that we want to use. Making connections, which social media facilitates, is not the core philosophy. If we make it the core, we end up with the useless self-gratification of passing things around to people who already agree with us, the vicious anger brought on by overexposure to unhealthy conversations, and the failure to use whatever we may have learned online to make the world a better place.

I believe that our core philosophy in the infant stages of online activism needs to be the telling of meaningful stories that get people involved in them. I think we’re just at the beginning of learning what this means, and I think there certainly is the risk that as a whole we will never learn what it means. But I am encouraged when Tim O’Reilly, a web pioneer if there ever was one, tells a room full of people creating the web today to “stop building trivial apps” and “make stuff that matters,” and goes on to talk about things that really do matter.

I have hope that we can make things out of this.