Saturday, October 9, 2010

Adbusters-Clicktivism Is Activism; Why Gladwell Is Wrong

Theorist Malcolm Gladwell:
(Story reported by Micah White for Adbusters)

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.

(Click here to read the full story on the Adbusters website.)

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