by Audrey Watters on 03 Oct, 2010
Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker essay "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted" has caused quite a stir. And I'm rather late to the commenting party, as smart people here, here, and here have already done a fine job of challenging some of the assertions Gladwell makes. Gladwell argues that, despite some of the grandiose claims about social media activism and political change, that both the relationships and the actions encouraged by social networks will fail to enact the sort of activism -- and by extension, the political transformation -- of something like the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins. And while, I agree, hitting the "Like" button next to a call for reusable shopping bags does not constitute "Revolution," I'm not sure that the bravest acts of civil disobedience in the US during the 1960s constituted "Revolution" either. Or at least, it didn't bring about "the Revolution," which since the events of May 1968 (or thereabouts), many philosophers and activists have become increasingly skeptical will actually happen. (And oh, the Marxist disappointment!) That isn't to say, of course, that there is not political upheaval and change, some of it is incredibly radical and transformative. But rather, many argue that power is not located in one person or group or in one institution -- in the King or the President or Capitalism or Men or White People. Instead, power is distributed and exercised through a variety of processes. And, resistance, like power, is fluid, meaning that, as such, resistance will not happen in one great act of emancipatory struggle. True, Gladwell, the Revolution will not be tweeted. But not because the Internet and online social networks have not shifted power and politics. Not because they cannot affect change. But rather, because there will be no (one) Revolution. It's notable, I think, that title of Gladwell's essay is drawn from Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Released in 1971, the song points to the gulf between the rhetoric and the acts of revolution, and between the promises and the distortions of liberation. "You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out." No doubt, there is plenty of plugging in, turning on, and copping out online, just as there was on the couch watching TV. As we have moved from television to the Internet for our entertainment, we could probably make a list much like Scott-Heron's, that rails against the web pop culture of the Justin Biebers and the Chad Vaders. As Scott-Heron notes, political activism that brings about extraordinary social change demands that "Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and women will not care if Dick finally gets down with Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day. The revolution will not be televised." -- The key here is people in the street, not people in front of a screen. And I agree, in so far as I believe in Revolution, that it demands we rise up and take action -- real action, not just nods of agreement or retweets of support. And I agree, as Scott-Heron ends his song, that Revolution, when/where/if it occurs, will not be taped for later screening from the comfort of our living rooms. "The revolution will be live." So revolutions, in so far as they happen (because even with the lower-case R, it is debatable what exactly rises to the level of this sort of radical upheaval), overthrow nodes of power in real-time. Despite Gladwell's dismissal of "networks," it may be that power itself operates that way. "Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history," writes Gladwell, "we seem to have forgotten what activism is." Perhaps. Perhaps, activism and dissent in the streets has been conflated with terrorism. Perhaps it has, thus far, failed to bring about the Revolution. And perhaps, just perhaps, that some fifty years after the acts of civil disobedience that Gladwell lauds, the ways in which people can organize, communicate, dissent, protest, resist, act has changed.
Audrey Watters is an education writer, rabble-rouser, rambler, recovering academic, lifelong learner, serial dropout, part-time badass, mom.
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