Malcolm Gladwell’s critique of social media as a tool of cultural revolution, published in October 4th’s New Yorker, was agreeable. And unsurprising.
Gladwell, author of — as you know — The Tipping Point, is interested in masses and trends and change, and he writes against those who would hail social media — Facebook, MySpace, Twitter — as a tool for social change.
Sociality, he argues in his New Yorker piece, is more complicated than social media’s pundits and ideologues posit. With social media, the argument goes, connections across vast social networks can be garnered to rally for a cause. But whereas your numerically and geographically expansive facebook network might be useful for circulating a petition or raising large amounts of money through small donations, these are not the kinds of social connections for which people are willing to put their neck on the line and really fight for serious, systemic change.
He offers as a counter-example to social media’s overblown potential the civil dissidents and activists who congregated quickly and en masse to protest across America’s South during the Civil Rights Movement. During the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, the predominantly Northern, white students who comprised the Project, were subject to shootings, kidnappings, and beatings. Nearly 25% of those who first signed up dropped out. Shit was dangerous.
The question he poses, then, is whether differences in ideological fervor was the variable that kept those other 75% on board during those tough times. No, he answers, it was strong social ties between fellow activists. Citing Doug McAdam, “high risk activism… is a ‘strong-tie’ phenomenon.” You stayed in Mississippi because you were in it together, with your best friends.
Judging from these themes, it’s surprising that Gladwell failed to reckon with Anonymous, the amorphous collective responsible for several retaliatory cyber-attacks against companies who, under pressure from the US government, blackballed WikiLeaks. Granted, October 2010 — when Gladwell’s essay was published — is a long time ago in the chronology of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange’s ascent. However, Anonymous has been at work for several years now.
For those not familiar with the collective, Anonymous fashions itself as a non-organization, an amorphous, rhizomatic group of affiliations, mutually oriented toward various targets of their ironically-tinged and aestheticized cyber-attacks. They communicate via message boards such as 4chan.
Early on, they bombarded and raided the website’s and personal information of white supremacist radio hosts and sexual predators. Yet, they also meet in person. In 2008, they led a campaign against the Church of Scientology for banning an interview with Tom Cruise about the church. Protests were coordinated in several metropolitan centers across the US, with Anons appearing in disguise — often under the veil of the Guy Faux mask.
Recently, of course, they’ve reached notoriety for their guerrilla support for Assange.
So what does Anonymous’s brand of “hacktivism” mean for Gladwell’s dichotomy of weak and strong social ties re: the relationship between social media and activism?
It means that Gladwell weighs too heavily on an overly determined iteration of ‘the-medium-as-message.’ At issue here is not the notion of social media as an organizing tool in and of itself, but rather something much larger, which is that weak-, as opposed to strong-, social ties are inherent in the limits and confines set in mainstream platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace; or better, that such commercialized forums actually foment and propagate weak-ties.
Clearly, Anonymous is not the Greensboro Four, and their manifestos challenge what to many might be deemed trivial or merely rooted in irony. Yet what they demonstrate is that the imprimatur to organize through open-source communication technology did not die with the apparent monopolization of the Internet. Let the masses act out, even if today’s environment does require the shroud of Anonymity.