Twitter, Revolution, Malcolm Gladwell and Dogwalking

Mookie Checking Her Newsfeed and Updating Her Status

I read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker Article, Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted, and I composed  this long rambling email response to Gladwell.

This was my message:

I was thinking about your article “Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted,” as I was walking my dog Mookie this morning. My husband and I refer to dog walking as letting Mookie “check her Facebook account.” When she sniffs where other dogs have posted their business, we say she is “reading status updates.” She also “posts” on the walls of others and ignores/accepts friend requests. It is her way of getting the news of her world and marking her place in it.

As a writer and an activist, I’ve been thinking a lot about social media. I used to be an editor at Satya Magazine (www.satyamag.com), and we published in depth coverage of critical issues relating to animal advocacy, environmentalism and social justice. In the three years since Satya’s closing, there has been a flurry of activity on these issues on twitter, facebook and the blogosphere. I wondered if these posts could replace the need for or fill the void of an in depth, monthly magazine.

In some ways, the quick and fast world of twitter is more appropriate for groundbreaking news, organizing activist events, and showcasing the work of activists. Undercover footage of farms, slaughterhouses, biomedical labs, have all gone viral, thanks to social media. Earlier this year, when vegan cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz, posted on facebook/twitter that she wanted to do something for Haiti, vegan bake sales sprouted up in cities across the country. Each were organized separately and donated the proceeds to different groups, but collectively raised over $40,000 for earthquake relief.

I do believe that Social Media is good for more than just helping Wall-Streeters get their phones back from teenage girls. The nonhierarchical nature of it, perhaps, can be viewed as a form of revolution. But as a writer, it was hard for me at first to embrace twitter, because truth sometimes requires more than 140 characters. In our fast paced digital world, as a writing professor of mine once noted, the acts of synthesizing information, reflection, and long form story telling, are perhaps also revolutionary acts.

I still miss Satya Magazine, and i think its void has not been filled. One of the things we did well, especially in our last year of publication, was examine activist approaches and the challenges of activism today. We explored the divides within social movements: corporate vs. grassroots, change from within industry vs. working against industry, etc. The big challenge facing activists today is the possibility of being labeled a terrorist. Over the past decade, the federal government and corporations have accused environmentalists, animal activists, and peace activists as being terrorists.  We have the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Will Potter on his site Green is the New Red, has reported on this issue extensively. The crackdown on activists is meant to have a chilling effect on activism. Even in your article, you lump terrorist organizations and nonviolent activists in the same analysis, which I think is a dangerous connection.

In your piece you say, “Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.” But we should also be careful in our approach. Too many smart, compassionate souls end up harmed or incarcerated, which isn’t good for the revolution either. Activist should also be fighting to protect basic constitutional freedoms. Choosing an approach that tries to avoid getting your revolutionaries behind bars doesn’t necessarily represent a faint heart or a lack of commitment or bravado. And as it turns out, social media isn’t always low-risk. In August, activist Rod Coronado was sent back to federal prison after he accepted a Facebook friend request from his Earth First! Cofounder Mike Roselle. This “associating” was deemed a violation of the terms of his probation.

Your article made me reflect a bit about activism today and pose some questions. As activist approaches are changing, perhaps so too, are the forces we are fighting.

I am reminded by the lyrics of the Ani DiFranco song, “Your Next Bold Move”:

All the multinationals have monopolized the oxygen,

So it’s as easy as breathing to participate.

Yes they are buying and selling off shares of air,

And you know it is all around you, but you can’t point and say there,

You just sit on your hands and quietly contemplate

Your Next Bold Move,

The next thing you’re gonna prove to yourself

Wealth and power have become more concentrated in this world, but also more invisible and protected. The concepts of boycotts and noncooperation have to adapt to this as well.

Gandhi’s movement was called Satyagraha. Truth –Action. Social media can help spread truth. Perhaps we can Tweet to Power. But I’m wondering what the nonviolent action that needs to accompany it might look like in today’s globalized digital world. Truth plus action is revolution. Truth without action, is perhaps just peeing on other people’s walls.

Gladwell did respond to my long email in Twitter length form:

Hi Sangu, thanks for your kind email!  I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and I appreciate you taking the time to write. MG

I thought I’d share this on the launch of VeganMoFo 2010, because I think VeganMofo is a great example of the potential and reach of Social Media.  How amazing is it that over 500 participants have signed on representing over 20 countries and 10 languages?   Building community is part of the Revolution and looking forward to seeing the change this community sets out to make.

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~ by sangamithra on November 1, 2010.

2 Responses to “Twitter, Revolution, Malcolm Gladwell and Dogwalking”

  1. Excellent piece, Sangu. Very thought provoking and written by someone (you!) who has done (does) activism vs. (I think) someone just theorizing about it(Gladwell). It’s different writing about something when you’ve actually done it, talked to other people who’ve done it, etc. I miss SATYA too!

    best,
    Cathryn.

  2. Thanks for reading Cathryn!

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