Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article entitled “Small Change-- Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” has caused a bit of a stir in the social media world lately. Gladwell asserts that Facebook and Twitter do not have a valid or active role in the creation of true social activism. After reading the article my reaction was this:
Has Malcolm Gladwell ever been to Arizona?
I suspect not. Otherwise he might have noticed that social media has played an important and even vital role in the groundswell of human rights activism that has arisen in this state.
I joined Facebook fairly late in the game, about a year and a half ago. Like many of my era (which I’ll kindly refer to as “newly middle aged”) I was resistant to the idea. To me Facebook was silly; a trivial waste of time spent in a mindless accumulation of friends, constant updates of uninteresting lives and playing silly games with even sillier names like Farmville or Farkle.
My son is to blame for tipping me into the social media world. He finally said to me with just a little exasperation, “Just try it. It’s the best way to stay in touch with me.” Since my son writes or emails me about as often as the subsequent comings of Christ, I figured I’d give it a try. After all, I could always unsubscribe or ignore it altogether if I found it to be as boring and trivial as I suspected.
At first I was careful to only friend people I was previously acquainted with. I had no intention of opening my life up to strangers and took my privacy very seriously. Since I didn’t know all that many Facebook users, my friends list got up to around 75 people and stayed there. Facebook began to get a bit dull, just as I’d predicted.
Things changed abruptly when SB1070 was signed into law by our governor. Almost overnight hundreds of pages cropped up on Facebook, both for and against the new law. The vortex beckoned and I found myself sucked in. Soon I was finding new friends, people who shared an interest in human rights and activism rather than just old ties. My friends list quickly grew.
A Facebook page called One Million Strong Against Arizona Immigration Law SB1070 took off with jackrabbit speed and quickly topped over one million members. One million! Then it grew to 1.5 million and finally settled at a little over 1.6 million. This was by far the largest and most active anti-SB1070 site with numerous posts on the wall every hour and an almost dizzying exchange of ideas and information. It was also here that I learned of a rally taking place in Phoenix at the State Capitol to protest SB1070.
I’d never attended a rally before-- I was far too young during the Vietnam War era to join in those protests. I had also found myself outside the loop during the anti-Iraq war events at the start of our involvement over there… perhaps because there WAS no social media back then (I often wonder if things might have turned out differently if this were not the case…). So here was an event taking place just forty-five minutes from my home and I was invited. I hesitated for a moment and then clicked the “I’m attending” button on the Facebook event page.
That was how activism started for me. Before long, I and tens of thousands of others were marching in the streets of Phoenix in a massive protest. But even those who stayed home were able to participate in their own form of activism via social media, whether it was sending money to an important cause, signing petitions online or simply feeling motivated to vote. To me, voting counts for a lot.
Malcolm Gladwell cites in his article the difference between “strong-ties”, i.e. close friends or relationships that are essential to spur boots-on-the-ground activism versus “weak-ties” -- friends made through social media that he claims are far less likely to be motivated to participate in meaningful activist roles. Gladwell’s premise is that it’s only through “strong-ties” activism that protesters can face dangers that are inherent in civil rights clashes.
Again, Gladwell has missed out on some real acts of bravery here in Arizona. I witnessed many who joined in civil disobedience, some of whom were hauled off to Sheriff Arpaio’s hellhole of a jail as a result-- even reportedly experiencing beatings while incarcerated there. Most of these people partook of the classes on civil disobedience that were heavily promoted through social media channels. I also watched as one man handcuffed himself to the door of Arpaio’s Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix in full expectation of being arrested (he was cut loose and let go instead). This same activist is also the creator of an anti-Joe Arpaio Facebook page with over eighty thousand members. It seems very likely that his social media involvement was a significant motivator in this act of protest. And who thinks that the courageous activism of the young undocumented students for the DREAM Act was not spurred on by social media as well?
To dismiss the power of Facebook and Twitter as instruments in social change is to dismiss Marconi in the early twentieth century or to call the internet a passing fad. Whether our ties are strong or weak at the onset is not an issue here, it’s what we make of our ties once we develop them. I’ve met several of my local Facebook activists in person now and consider them to be my “real” friends. These are people I had no previous ties to whatsoever and if not for SB1070 and Facebook I wouldn’t have known they even existed. I also know my world would have been a lot flatter and less interesting as a result.
So it’s time to rise up all you Facebook, Twitter and human rights aficionados. Awaken your inner protester and let the activism fly. Like it or not, we live in a digital age and it’s up to us to make use of the most current tools at our disposal. You can be sure the other side is doing the very same thing.
Or as that old activist for a Whole Earth, Stewart Brand once said,