Why Gladwell is Wrong

Clicktivism is activism degraded into advertising.

Photo by Michelle McCarron of a protest against Chevron

A couple of months ago, in a polemic for the Guardian website, I lambasted the folly of clicktivism. I accused digital activists of jeopardizing the possibility of social revolution by accepting the logic of marketing. Clicktivism's "ineffectual marketing campaigns spread political cynicism and draw attention away from genuinely radical movements," I wrote before warning that, "political passivity is the end result of replacing salient political critique with the logic of advertising." Now Malcolm Gladwell, in this week's New Yorker, has added his voice to the debate.

In the first part of Gladwell's essay, he tells the uplifting story of how four college students sparked a wave of protest against racial segregation. He draws an important distinction between high-risk activism that flies in the face of social mores and low-risk activism that is socially accepted. Anti-segregation sit-ins are a powerful example of the former and Gladwell's retelling of those events are deeply inspiring. He then concludes that digital activism encourages low-risk activism while what is needed is high-risk actions.

On this point Gladwell and I agree. Where we disagree is on the cause of digital activism's propensity to demand very little. In the Guardian piece, I explained that this tendency is due to clicktivism's adoption of the logic of advertising. Clicktivists are obsessed with metrics, I pointed out, and this "results in a race to the bottom of political engagement". Because, "to inflate participation rates, these [clicktivist] organizations increasingly ask less and less of their members". Gladwell concurs. As he puts it: "But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them." But when Gladwell tries to explain why digital activist organizations ask so little of their members, he takes his argument in the wrong direction entirely. This is because Gladwell fails to make the crucial connection between digital activism and advertising.

In the second part of his essay, Gladwell argues that the problem with clicktivism is that it fosters "weak ties". He contrasts this with the "strong ties" that are necessary to carry out the kinds of dangerous, risky activism that social change is made of. For Gladwell, "weak ties" are the natural result of digital technologies which, he claims, encourage networks whereas only hierarchies can give us the needed strong ties. It is on this point that I think Gladwell is fundamentally mistaken. The proper debate is not between networks and hierarchies.

As a general rule, any argument that takes the form of "technology cannot do xyz" is bound to fail. And this is no exception. Even if they do not do it yet, the mavericks of digital activism are capable of building technologies which will enable hierarchies and strong ties.

In fact, I expect that clicktivists will respond to Gladwell's critique by redoubling their efforts to build exactly these kinds of tools. One way this will happen is through the emergent field of "alternate reality gaming" (ARG) where activism is turned into a game. Although Jane McGonigal has already developed several prototype experiences, the best work is being done by advertisers. To get a taste of the possibilities, take ten minutes to play Eagle Eye Free Fall, an ARG built to promote a mainstream movie.

In the future, clicktivism will cease to be based on the MoveOn model. It will no longer be dependent on email and online petitions. Instead, activism will be positioned as a fun, real-world game where social change is the ultimate mission. The point here is not to endorse this development, upon which I reserve judgement, but merely to say that digital activists will ultimately recuperate Gladwell's superficial critique.

The important distinction is not between weak and strong ties or networks and hierarchies. It is instead between political and social revolution. By political revolution, I mean a change to the leadership of a society that does not impact the social structures, mores or power relations. A social revolution, on the other hand, is one where the political regime is not the focus of struggle because what is at stake is the very way of being, living and experiencing the world.

Digital activism excels at political revolution. It is well-suited to the task of electoral reform, parliamentary politics, canvassing and all the tricks of advertising-inflected politics. If you want to run for president, build a website. If you want to sell a product, get on Twitter.

But can techno-activism accomplish an emancipatory, egalitarian social revolution?

This is a tricky question because technology is accomplishing a social revolution everyday by changing the ways we communicate, live, work, etc. Digital technologies are, by their nature, socially revolutionary. So we must invert the question and ask whether the kind of social revolution that technology is bringing forth is the one that we desire. This question forces us to address the underlying ideology of clicktivist technologies, which Gladwell does not do.

As I argued, that underlying ideology is consumerism, marketing and advertising. And any technology built on the foundation of those three ills will only bring us updated forms of consumerism, marketing and advertising. If we fail to see the connection between clicktivism and advertising, as Gladwell fails to do, then we will be without a coherent critique. Worse still, we will, like Gladwell, endorse the wrong solution.

Gladwell offers activists the wrong advice. He proposes a return to an anachronistic, authoritarian, and hierarchical model of activism. This may work from a political revolution perspective, but it will never bring about the necessary social revolution. Instead, what is needed today is a new breed of activists who "jettison the consumerist ideology of marketing that has for too long constrained the possibility of social revolution."

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley and is writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org