In a recent article in the New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell wrote an article about activism and why it won’t happen online. He redrew the story of the 1960 Greensboro County Sit Ins and social activism (visit the wiki link if you did not take American History or need a brush up). Gladwell argues that social activism will never make the same kind of social impact that sit-ins did because of the pure structure of our social online communities.

Our hundreds (or thousands) of Facebook friends are weak-ties. These ties are incredibly important for doing the kind of thing Facebook wants us to do: maintain connections with our friends. It gives us the power to express but diminishes the power to have impact. As Facebook solves the information overload problem, is it muting us?

On activism through social media from Gladwell’s New Yorker column:

It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient.

In Verbalising the Visual, Michael Clarke discusses Hermeneutics. We discussed “meaning” in experience design and it’s important to discuss it again here.

“Meaning becomes as much dependent on the interpretations of the reader/listener as the intentions of the writer/speaker….Julia Kristeva persuasively argued that all texts are enmeshed in complex relationships with other existing texts in the same language/literary/visual culture. Thus the term intertextuality with its implications of an infinite extension of possible meanings.”

First, I’m not sure if that last sentence is a sentence. Second, I think one thing Gladwell did not touch on is the absolute context of activism in such a social space. The reader/listener is such an essential part of the Facebook experience, even moreso than on Twitter, WordPress, Flickr or other online mediums that allow for expression.

The site is designed and centered around conversation and connectedness. None of those things are possible without the reader, the friend on the other side, the “complex relationships” in which the texts are enmeshed.

But generally, Facebook is for passivists in many ways. By nature it is entertainment and fitting in a social activism movement with even a 10th of the power the sit-ins had. Right now many women and men are writing about breast cancer on Facebook as an activist movement. But, beyond drawing passive awareness to a cause, how much more does it do?

Beyond that, the Facebook algorithm is designed to quiet information overload and filter out anything about breast cancer if any of my past behavior and current connections suggest I don’t care. How does activism fit in there? Where is the power of text when the part of the interpretation (selection on what to read) is determined by a computer?*

All that being said, I agree with Gladwell that activism that leads to change will continue to take place offline. Our social places will be a way to coordinate and gather, but to get in the faces of problems, we still need a physical lunch counter that exists beyond text.

*If you’re interested in reading more about Gladwell’s post, activism and how the Facebook Algorithm fits, in, I wrote a related post on my personal blog: Do algorithms suppress us or set us free?