Malcolm Gladwell gets started with "The revolution will not be tweeted" in this week's New Yorker, condemning social media's ability to enact real cultural change with an argument he sums up early in the piece:
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.
Who are the "they"? It's not really clear. But even as someone who's had an "evangelist" title in the past, I don't come to refute Gladwell's strawman argument. His point is that today's social networks are fundamentally unable to drive the sort of social change that fueled upheavals like the civil rights movement. I agree; As I said last year, Facebook often enables politics of the sort that convinces college kids that changing their middle name on a website is a form of activism. And the idea that the uprisings in Iran were driven by Twitter or any other social media is clearly refuted by realities such as Hossein "Hoder" Derakhshan, the father of the Iranian blogosphere, being sentenced to nineteen years in prison. The traditional method sit-in and picket-in-the-streets form of protest is clearly a failure online.
Take A Bath, Hippie
The problem with Gladwell's premise, though, is that it's wildly anachronistic to think that the only way to effect social change is to assemble a sign-wielding mob to inhabit a public space. I cringe in anticipation of the day when the Tea Party realizes their protest marches will be as ineffective as the even more massive anti-Iraq war rallies were seven years ago. People who want to see marches in the streets are often unwilling to admit that those marches just don't produce much in the way of results in America in 2010.
However: There are revolutions, actual political and legal revolutions, that are being led online. They're just happening in new ways, and taking subtle forms unrecognizable to those who still want a revolution to look like they did in 1965. Gladwell is absolutely right to say that political action today takes place in the form of many smaller, simpler steps than it did when one used to have to put livelihood, liberty, or even life on the line to make change happen. That doesn't mean it's ineffective, just that it's a million small protests instead of one visible act. For me, it's a form of protest that feels much more Asian in its methods, with a steady trickle of small rebellions instead of the traditional western model of the visible, violent, aggrieved uprising. The evolution in the tactics of social change is what inspired the question I was trying to ask earlier this year:
Imagine if half a million people marched on Washington, collectively broke federal law, did it in plain sight of the world's leaders and traditional media, and yet we all barely noticed? What if political leaders didn't even see it as a political act, but instead as some sort of funny stunt?
We have had an enormous and concerted act of social disobedience play out over the past half-decade, where millions have decided that the present regime of intellectual property law and corporate control over the way we communicate is no longer tenable. So, every day, with the click of a button, people from all walks of life are ignoring the law and protesting in public, simply by uploading content to YouTube or Facebook or anywhere else.
The disobedience is not just online. This past weekend, at the same venerable fairgrounds that hosted the 1964 World's Fair in Queens, Maker Faire finally found its way to New York City, after phenomenal events in California, the U.K., and Texas. Maker Faire (and Make magazine) were founded by the mild-mannered Dale Dougherty, whose quiet demeanor suggests he's anything but a radical, and whose own statements would, I'm sure, insist that he's just having fun, not doing anything political. The reality, though, is that Dale Dougherty is the man who coined the phrase "Web 2.0" (a concept potent enough that "2.0" has been applied to every discipline from sex to, yes, civil rights). He's got a knack for identifying where society is headed. And he's in a community that's doing a great job of getting organized.
The Maker Party
Today, Dale Dougherty and the dozens of others who have led Maker Faire, and the culture of "making", are in front of a movement of millions who are proactive about challenging the constrictions that law and corporations are trying to place on how they communicate, create and live. The lesson that simply making things is a radical political act has enormous precedence in political history; I learned it well as a child when my own family's conversation after a screening of Gandhi turned to the salt protests in India, which were first catalyzed in my family's home state of Orissa, and found out that my great-grandfather had walked alongside Gandhi and others in the salt marches that followed. Today's American Tea Partiers see even the original "tea party" largely as a metaphor, but the salt marches were a declaration of self-determination as expressed through manufacturing that took the symbolism of the Boston Tea Party and made it part of everyday life.
To his last day, my great-grandfather wore khadi, the handspun clothing that didn't just represent independence from the British Raj in an abstract way, but made defiance of onerous British regulation as plain as the clothes on one's back. At Maker Faire this weekend, there were numerous examples of clothing that were made to defy laws about everything from spectrum to encryption law. It would have been only an afternoon's work to construct a t-shirt that broadcast CSS-descrambling code over unauthorized spectrum in defiance of the DMCA.
And if we put the making movement in the context of other social and political movements, it's had amazing success. In city after city, year after year, tens of thousands of people pay money to show up and learn about taking control of their media, learning, consumption and communications. In contrast to groups like the Tea Party, the crowd at Maker Faire is diverse, includes children and adults of all ages, and never finds itself in conflict with other groups based on identity or politics. More importantly, the jobs that many of us have in 2030 will be determined by young people who attended a Maker Faire, in industries that they've created. There is no other political movement in America today with a credible claim at creating the jobs of the future.
Making A Revolution
The debate now is whether the leaders of today's political movements with the most potential for exceptional change will accept the mantle of simply being political leaders. Because they're already having enormous impact, and earning recognition from the President himself. President Obama's acknowledgement came early, right in his inaugural address:
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
It wasn't the birthers or the truthers who earned the nod for helping shape America's future: It was the makers. Their protests, their sit-ins, take the simple form of making things and sharing them with each other, online and off. The quietness of their ways, the heads-down determination of the scientist instead of the chin-jutting attitude of the street fighter, might make them easy to overlook. But that doesn't mean that it's not a significant and enduring movement. it doesn't mean the will of these millions of people doesn't count, simply because it's expressed in a way that doesn't look like protest did five decades ago.
Best of all, the people who actually make these things happen aren't just sitting around clicking "Like" on things online. As has been true since the earliest days of the blogosphere, the best minds in social media get together in person to help plan the future. One such event that you can visit this weekend? The venerable ConvergeSouth. It takes place at NC A&T State University, the proud home of the freshmen students who in 1960 held that first sit-in at Woolworth's.
Update: A year later, Recognizing the Maker Movement, an interview with Dale Dougherty revisiting many of these ideas.