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What Gladwell Got Wrong: Beyond "Like Button" Activism

10/01/2010 09:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Once again, the Internet is aflutter in response to -- what else? -- an article that is critical of the Internet. This week's object of online fury is Malcom Gladwell's take on "Facebook activism," which, he writes, "succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice."

And while I'm often sympathetic to criticisms of starry-eyed tech-triumphalism, this time, I'm taking sides with the Internet: Gladwell's got it wrong.

As Chris Hughes, my colleague on the Obama campaign, has pointed out, Gladwell vastly oversimplifies online organizing -- and fails to understand that, far from creating a zero-sum game, online participation can be a powerful gateway to offline engagement.

It's interesting that Gladwell didn't mention the massive grassroots movement that formed around the Obama campaign -- a movement that could not have taken shape without online organizing. And while the sacrifice of Obama's supporters can't be compared to the Greensboro lunch counter protesters, their engagement was far from trivial. Our average donor (there were over 3 million of them) gave more than twice -- that's saying a lot during an economic downturn. More importantly, hundreds of thousands of grassroots events were organized on my.BarackObama.com (myBO). These events may have been planned online, but they took place in the real world, where volunteers built deep relationships with one another and trained each other to become more effective organizers in their communities.

As one grassroots organizer put it in a video we created during the campaign: "It's the relationships we have with each other that give us strength." If this isn't what Gladwell calls "strong ties" - to him, a key ingredient of meaningful activism - I don't know what is.

Any online organizer worth his salt recognizes that his job isn't to get people to "like" a page on Facebook, but to empower people to take tangible, real-world actions: making phone calls, knocking on doors, attending rallies, hosting house meetings, and donating. I don't care about the latest technology unless I'm convinced it can be used to promote the oldest technology: using the human voice, face to face, with other human beings. I'm excited by the potential the iPhone brings to organizing, not because it will enable people to tweet about their preferred candidate more frequently, but because people will be able to upload "walk lists" wherever they are, and will be empowered to canvass on demand.

If Gladwell actually wants to understand how technology can be leveraged to spur meaningful activism, I've got some homework for him: Ari Berman's deep and considered look at the Obama campaign, Herding Donkeys.

While every other book I've seen on the Obama campaign focuses on inside baseball -- the attacks and counter-attacks and top-down decisions that supposedly defined the campaign -- Berman's is the only account that delves deeply into the campaign's marriage of online and offline organizing. (Disclosure: Berman was a colleague when I worked at The Nation).

Berman describes how the new media team moved supporters up the ladder of engagement, and ultimately offline:

On the Dean campaign, the rush of online activity had failed to translate to votes at the polls. [OFA New Media Director Joe] Rospars wanted to be certain that didn't happen again, quickly integrating new media with the organizers out in the field knocking on doors and targeting voters... "One of the biggest lessons coming out of their campaign was, just because someone signs up on your email list doesn't mean they're a supporter or willing to be helpful," said [Deputy Campaign Manager Steve] Hildebrand. "We always had the sense that anybody who came to our website, we had to work to take them offline, and if we could get them involved offline we could really count on them." No candidate had yet merged the online and offline world before; doing so would represent a major innovation. "The first thing new media did," said Illinois state director Jon Carson, "it just found people you don't find otherwise."

As Berman details throughout Herding Donkeys, we trusted our supporters to organize their own local groups on myBO and act, often without any staff supervision, on behalf of the campaign. There is little doubt that, without the organizing myBO enabled, we simply would not have won the caucus states and eventually secured the nomination.

And frankly, as Berman notes in his book, one reason the White House has struggled is because this kind of approach towards the grassroots hasn't carried over to the administration. The people on Obama's 13 million person email list have been asked to sign e-cards for Obama's birthday and buy souvenir mugs; exactly the kind of "weak tie" activism Gladwell derides in his essay. They could have been asked to take action that requires sacrifice and struggle -- like pressuring the Democratic Senators who stood, for so long, in the way of passing health care reform. Instead, they've been told to voice soft, inoffensive support for Obama's initiatives, to essentially keep quiet while the President's inner circle negotiates with Congress behind closed doors.

Presumably, this approach to the grassroots is coming from the top. This is why the news of Rahm Emanuel's departure -- and perhaps more significantly, David Plouffe's possible entry into the White House - could be an opening for a return to the grassroots strategy we saw on the campaign. Plouffe understood what Gladwell doesn't: that technology can be used to strengthen real-world ties, organize people to do real things, and empower people to create meaningful change.

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