There are of course flaws in Gladwell’s article, which critics have been quick to catch on. Critical is his example of the Civil Rights Movement itself. He writes, “And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where 98% of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?”. While it was certainly true in the 1960s, church attendance is rather poor today. A critic therefore uses this for a rebuttal – social networks provide the role that the church building did for the movement. That criticism is quite valid, indeed, if Martin Luther King had these networks at hand, would he not have made effective of them?
Nevertheless, Twitter’s founders have been quick to accept his argument that the revolutions in Moldova and Iran were not really helped by the micro-blogging site.
Critics have pointed to the ground mobilisation for ‘causes’ through social networks. The protests last month in Kashmir and mobilisation against an Arizona law have been cited. Facebook & YouTube apparently let people get the ‘other’ side of the story. People mobilised, organised rallies on the ground.
Except they didn’t. Firstly, there’s little evidence that Kashmir’s protests were coordinated using social networks in the first place. Internet access is poor in the region, and you’d need Kashmiri, not English, to get things done. Secondly, the outrage that the human rights violations could have generated never materialised; the Indian government was never under pressure from the west. The kind of Western enthusiasm for the Iran campaign never happened, the Kashmiri government has failed to be overthrown.
Arizona’s law is still being enforced. A majority of Arizonan voters want it, however unfair it is. The Tweeting protestors have failed to convince (or coerce) them otherwise.
Contrast this with Gujarat’s Nav Nirman movement. It began with college students protesting against bad hostel food in December 1973. Now hostelites are known to be quite close to each other, since they share a lot in common, especially physical space. They have a tightness of bonds not replicated online. They bring their friends in, their cousins, their relatives. They are willing to take police beatings. The movement grows, Gujarat is completely paralysed. On March 15th, 1974 the Nav Nirman agitation succeeded in overthrowing the government and dissolving the assembly. In more recent days, we can see this pattern repeated in Telangana.
In Singur (and earlier Nandigram), what began as a spontaneous (and controllable) farmers’ agitation, spun out of control as soon as it turned into a hierarchy with a control centre (in the form of Mamata Banerjee). The agitation lasted months, till the Tata factory was shifted out. As Gladwell argues, a true agitation requires months of sacrifice and determined leadership; those run on social networks tend to fizzle out much faster, if they ignite at all. (This is not to argue that the leadership or the movement were right; but they certainly were determined.)
One critic lambasts Gladwell for ignoring the election of Barack Obama, a campaign in which social networks are credited with a big role. But that too fails to stand. Barack Obama’s election campaign was not a network. It had a hierarchy, funds and a central pacemaker – Obama himself.
Another critique tried a balancing act. While acknowledging the argument that activism needs more than just a fascination with the tools, he tries to imagine a world where a more professional activist (Medha Patkar?) might make more enlightened use of the tool. Which, in a way, is an acknowledgement of Gladwell’s very point. A true activist would have forged strong bonds and been a forceful motivator of people, acting as a central pacemaker, helping the online campaign gain traction and reach its ‘tipping point’, when it succeeds in having an impact.
But that is not how social networks really work. They demand equality and a lack of leadership; everybody’s views are supposed to count equally, everybody makes the same level of sacrifices and all share equally the fruit. The Narmada Bachao Andolan would have floundered on a social network. As it indeed does.
So we still have rickshaw drivers being as arrogant as they are, incompetent governments are still incumbent. The revolution will probably never happen, let alone get tweeted.