February 27, 2011

Civil Society, Internet Activism… and Betty White

In the Gladwell v. Shirky debate regarding the power of the Internet, specifically facebook and twitter, for social change both authors gave examples of social activism either using the Internet or some other form of communication. All I could think about reading about the power (or lack thereof) of social media tools was the Betty White campaign on facebook for her to host SNL. Clearly this shows my lack of knowledge of world events and my inability to come up with a serious political example for comparison to those of Shirky and Gladwell, but nonetheless it is my only experience with using social media for some orchestrated outcome. I will never forget the day that it was announced that Betty White would indeed host SNL after nearly one million facebook users simply clicked the ‘join’ button for a group dedicated to her hosting. It had deep meaning for me because I had been following Ms. White’s career since her days on the Mary Tyler Moore Show (I had cable at a young age and at a certain time at night nothing good is on but Nick at Nite). It felt slightly empowering, I felt like while I had literally done nothing but click a few links I was a part of something bigger. Three quarters of million people and myself had declared we wanted something and by golly we had gotten it.

I imagine something like this must feel a million fold better for a Moldovan who had joined a facebook group and saw the Communist part in their country ousted. So whether one would call it ‘power’ or not, no one can deny the facilitating factor that facebook, twitter and mobile phones can bring to activism. However I don’t think that the most important issue is how much they help. As Shirky himself states people have been communicating their ideas against dominant powers in many different ways for many centuries, dating back to the days of Martin Luther and his 95 thesis and even way before this. Using whatever tools we have, human beings have communicated their ideas as best we could until a newer way of doing so has made it faster and easier. I am sure Gladwell would agree with this as well; he knows that the sit in movements of the 1960s could not have grown without communication to neighboring cities and states about what was going on in Greensboro through the use of newspapers, word of mouth, etc. If it helps, no matter how big or small, why not use it?

However I do understand why Gladwell stresses the importance of human interaction and emotional ties to the effect and strength of a movement. Even Castells mentions in his “The Mobile Civil Society” that the movements would not have worked if people didn’t recognize the person who a text was coming from when organizing protests. The fact that it came from a friend or a family member legitimatized the message, and did give the person a reason to go out and protest.

So I think my final thought after reading both articles is that the goal of any movement is to reach as many people as possible in order to convey the discontent of the masses, and the more people the stronger the message you are sending. How you get to those numbers is by using communication tools which is what Gladwell calls facebook and twitter. And while they certainly will not make of break a successful movement if the people are motivated enough, something tells me that if facebook was a possibility in the 1960s, four college freshman would have definitely been using it to tell their friends, their acquaintances, the world what they were trying to achieve.


Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, and Araba Sey “The Mobile Civil Society” from Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective (2007); 185-213

Malcolm Gladwell, "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," The New Yorker,

Clay Shirky, "The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Social Change," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011, 28-41.

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