I’m an outsider looking in on all that’s happening in Egypt.
Since January 25, I’ve been overwhelmed, amazed, and inspired by the Egyptian people protesting on the streets of Cairo and throughout the nation, following #jan25 and #egypt tweets on Twitter, watching the live stream and coverage on Al Jazeera English, and keeping up with blogs like The Arabist and the Guardian UK’s news blog. (This Mother Jones page, “What’s Happening in Egypt Explained,” is a helpful resource of compiled sources and multimedia from the past week, too.)
After reading a protest-related New Yorker piece from today, “A Policeman’s Engagement,” I stumbled upon Malcolm Gladwell’s October 2010 essay, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted,” which has made me think about the incredible power and role of social media, namely Twitter and Facebook, in the Egyptian people’s fight for freedom and change, and the resulting pseudo-activism—of those not directly affected by what happens in Egypt, like me—that Gladwell discusses in his piece.
In “Small Change,” Gladwell notes several events in American history that exemplify “high-risk activism,” notably an afternoon in February 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four black college students sit at a lunch counter reserved for whites. The waitress says they “don’t serve Negroes,” but for the rest of the day, they don’t move from their seats. The small crowd that forms outside swells to hundreds and hundreds of protesters over the next few days. People throughout the South hear what is happening and want to be a part of it. By the end of the month, protests are reported as far as Texas. Some 70,000 students participate.
This, says Gladwell, is true social activism.
I spend more time online than not—not just because the nature of my work requires it, but because I value the information and connections I have built online, both professionally and personally. If you don’t feel social media networks like Twitter and Facebook add value to your life, that’s fine; after my own experimentation with these tools, I have learned how to use them effectively—to connect and collaborate with likeminded media professionals and travelers, to promote my writing and photography, and to curate news and trends on ideas and issues that matter to me, all in one place.
Says Gladwell on social media: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution.” I have always been amazed by the Internet: what it teaches me, who I meet, how it inspires me. This week in particular, the influx of media and information about the protests in Egypt—in the form of tweets, YouTube videos, blog posts of fragmented thoughts and Twitpics, ground-level audio clips—is so powerful, so constant, and so raw that it’s paralyzing at times to absorb it all. But it’s a good kind of frozen—to have access to all this information, to watch these images and real-time streams from the Middle East.
I’m on-the-fence about Malcolm Gladwell in general—I think his books (from The Tipping Point to Outliers) are more of the same. (Amusing digression: Seen this?) I’ll admit I dove into this piece irritated, especially given the title and subtitle. Small change? The revolution will not be tweeted?
Whatever, asshole. I’m part of this social media generation you imply is powerless, and I am certainly not insignificant.
After reading his piece, however, I agreed with him.
Social media connects us, pushes us to collaborate, enables innovation, and celebrates equal participation (think Wikipedia). But Gladwell asserts that social media networks are “built around weak ties” that “seldom lead to high-risk activism.” On a Facebook page, I am asked to donate funds to a friend who is walking in an event for breast cancer awareness. Or on Twitter, someone asks me to donate money to a project that will build a school in India or provide supplies to students in Honduras. And I participate in such things, because why not? I have the time and the money to do so—it takes little effort.
This passive activism is the result of these kinds of social media efforts. We are not asked to do too much, Gladwell says—”That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf.” Whether I’m running an AIDS marathon (which I did in New Orleans in 2004) or visiting the hospital for a bone marrow testing (which I did for a high school friend who had leukemia), these acts don’t require me to do much: No challenge of the status quo. No physical danger.
I have never risked my life in the way those four students did, in North Carolina in the volatile sixties.
I have never protested on the streets and demanded that my president step down from his 30-year-rule and prayed for basic freedoms and the ability to vote for my leaders.
What have I done? Or the current question: what am I doing now? I read the passionate, desperate tweets from brave protesters on my computer screen. I am deeply inspired, I comment on other’s tweets, I share articles on Facebook. I feel like I’m participating.
But, I am not.
“Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice,” writes Gladwell.
These words stunned me at first. But after thinking about it, in regard to my own actions, I realize he is on point. I wish he wasn’t.