The|Intangibles » Activism Selected posts from Boyd Neil's blog at Tue, 23 Nov 2010 20:22:30 +0000 en hourly 1 Gladwell on the Sidelines Tue, 28 Sep 2010 10:57:36 +0000 Boyd Neil 417677:4590288:9023240

(The lovely image is from the article discussed below, but there is no credit identified.)

Malcolm Gladwell tends to write about what exists and why, not what is coming into existence and what it means or how to advance it.

In an article in the October 4th issue of The New Yorker called Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, he does it again with social media activism:

. . . it is a form of organizing which favors weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. 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 an impact.

He is talking, of course, about ’slacktivism’ which is the pundit’s dismissive term for the way many people leave their militancy on the walls of Facebook pages:

Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make real sacrifice.

Contrasted to this is “high-risk activism” which is at the core of disruptive social change like that which started the civil rights movement in the US in the late 50s and early 60s . . . “Activism that challenges the status quo – that attacks deeply rooted problems – is not for the faint of heart.” It requires, as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (rendered in the picture above) and Gladwell agree, strategy, discipline and hierarchy. (That’s why the Bolsheviks led a revolution and anarchists could not.)

No argument there. But to say this is not Facebook, Twitter and other social networks is short-sighted and something of a straw-man line of reasoning. Yes Facebook and Twitter are weak-tie networks and will never in themselves be platforms for sweeping systemic change. But they do a couple of things well: they create ties where there were none before; and they are a source of ideas. People making connections and debating ideas are fertile ground for social activism, just like the late night chats of the freshmen in Greensboro who courageously challenged racism at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960, Gladwell’s apocryphal story (not in the facts, which are true, but in the significance Gladwell affords it) starting point for his article.

I wish Gladwell had spent his awesome intellectual gifts thinking about what use of the social web could move weak-tie connections to the strong-tie relationships that are midwives to strategic and disciplined social activism. He should take a close look at successful online political and community organizing (such as the Obama election campaign about which he says nothing) and see how it converts loose networks into a campaign force. Or he should imagine a Facebook campaign which, at its inception, builds in mechanisms for organizing action, for gathering and unleashing committed high-risk activists.

Instead, Gladwell plays to the myopic crowd who find it easier to talk about limits than about opportunties.

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Democracy is Safe Thu, 19 Mar 2009 21:36:21 +0000 Boyd Neil,2003:post-64093799

An extensive analysis in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail newspaper by Sinclair Stewart and Grant Robertson repeats a popular question: “(I)f print is a dinosaur, what will take up its traditional roles — informing the public, animating civic culture and holding government accountable?” Jon Slattery picks it up in the U.K.’s The Guardian in a piece with the earthy title ‘Where the hell do we go now?’ And Canadian blogger and former journalist Mark Evans chimes in with his worry about maintaining the quality of journalism in the face of dissection of the newsroom . . . . without, however, taking a stand on the future of news journalism and without drawing a picture of an alternative news cosmos.

The background to the soul-searching is the precipitous disappearance of major newspapers in print form (The Seattle Intelligencer most recently and The San Francisco Chronicle likely next). At the core of the discussion, other than the loss of jobs and the “decline” of quality (The quotation marks are purposeful since quality has been in retreat in broadcast and print journalism from before social media became a threat.) is the question of whether social discourse, investigative inquiry and democracy will suffer without an energetic and well-financed fourth estate playing the role of critical watchdog.

The model is changing. That much is self-evident. But there is an embryonic new model within the decline (which nearly always happens in transition periods) and it is based on an unprecedented ability to gather, share and act collectively. Clay Shirky in ‘Here Comes Everybody’ calls it a new communications “ecology”:


“The change isn’t a shift from one kind of news institution to another, but rather in the definition of news: from news as an institutional prerogative to news as part of a communications ecosystem, occupied by a mix of formal organizations, informal collectives, and individuals.”

Some of the critical pieces of the prototype are already in place.

The ability of people using social networks to form and act together in groups means that problems like corruption and malfeasance among legislators, clergy and citizens can be discovered and fought with even greater speed than when we depended on investigative journalism to root it out. Shirky again . . . “social tools don’t create collective action – they merely remove the obstacles to it.” Without the obstacles to discovery and action, the social criminals and demagogues won’t be able to hide for long.

With the ability of anyone to publish, for the time being we have lost the beauty of fine writing. But not the capacity to find and report significant events. In exchange, we’ve got speed in reporting news, depth, breadth and personality in what is understood as “news”, and often now quirky and energetic prose. The result may be hyper-local community reportage (and publications), but it can also become national and international news if warranted or needed. The disappearance of some print and broadcast outlets doesn’t mean that news is not being revealed, or that criticism isn’t being coalesced into opposition, only that the agent has changed.

As for print newspapers providing a sense of community and hence their disappearance leading to a decline in a sense of place, this is silly. Where we get a sense of community is simply shifting to social networks built around communities and communities of interest. I can learn as much (and find out more immediately) about Toronto from as from the Toronto Star or the Toronto Sun.

Newspapers as we know them won’t all disappear. We need journalistic models of quality, thoroughness and objectivity to learn from and against which to measure citizen journalism. And they’re wonderful to sit with on a Sunday morning while enjoying a cappuccino. Nevertheless, their influence will surely continue to decline. However, democracy is safe in the hands of all of us.

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Dealing With the Trust Deficit Thu, 12 Mar 2009 12:55:27 +0000 Boyd Neil,2003:post-63928323

What I like about Sun Life Financial Inc. giving shareholders an advisory vote on executive compensation (joining seven other Canadian financial institutions including most of the large banks, although not Toronto-Dominion Bank and Manulife Financial Corp.)is that the company has evidently recognized something has to be done by business to rebuild shareholder and public trust.

Since the Enron years, most polling acknowledges a steady decline in trust in business and financial institutions. Any doubts about the extent of the decline are obviated when you look at the results of a recent Harris Poll:

“Those who think ‘most people on Wall Street would be willing to break the law if they believed that they could make a lot of money and get away with it’ are up to 71%. The highest number previously was 64% in 1996.”

True, this is Wall Street we are talking about, ground zero for dishonest and manipulative practices in investment and compensation strategies. But mistrust is becoming indiscriminate and ubiquitous.

There are those who think this trust deficit is temporary, a function of the economic tsunami hitting global finance. Once things go back to “normal”, the argument goes, the pressure for greater transparency in compensation policies and increased board oversight will whither away in a sea of fatter profits.

Ian Davis, worldwide managing director of McKinsey, arguing the contrary, is closer to the truth: He has written a piece called ‘The New Normal’ in which he forecasts that:

“. . . around the world governments will be calling the shots in sectors (such as debt insurance) that were once only lightly regulated. They will also be demanding new levels of transparency and disclosure for investment vehicles such as hedge funds and getting involved in decisions that were once the sole province of corporate boards, including executive compensation.”

This will be the new normal, and without actions similar to that of Sun Life and the seven other Canadian financial institutions increased shareholder activism, loud public displeasure, media sniping, punishment by consumers and abrupt regulation will surely follow.

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