Small Acts of Courage and Revolution
When you drive past a car wreck, it’s human nature to stop, or at least slow down, and look.
That’s pretty much how I feel about the debate that’s broken out concerning Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in The New Yorker about how “The revolution will not be tweeted” and Twitter founder Biz Stone’s response in The Atlantic, lauding social media as a powerful force for good.
I’m very far away from the cocktail party chatter among the digerati of Manhattan and Berkeley, but I have experienced a revolution, up close and personal. Clearly, both men’s views miss fundamental realities about both revolutions and the part social media has to play in world events.
The Orange Revolution
I was living in Kiev, Ukraine in 2004 when the Orange Revolution erupted. For those of you that aren’t familiar with it, it was sandwiched in between two other colour revolutions (Rose in Georgia and Tulip in Kyrgyzstan) that were built on the model of the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia.
In Ukraine, the proximate cause was the fraudulent election that aimed to put Victor Yanukovych, a former felon, in the presidency. In the run-up to the election, there was blatant Russian intervention and a plethora of obvious irregularities, ranging from use of state resources to the bombing of newspaper offices.
While exit polls showed opposition candidate, Victor Yushchenko, to be the clear winner, the official results announced Yanukovych as the new president. In an amazing display of collective action, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. Here’s what it looked like at Kiev’s Independence Square.
And it wasn’t just there, but all over the city throngs of protesters were out in the bitter cold, making their voices heard. In offices, everybody took shifts. Some would stay behind and work while the others went out to the protests, then return and allow their coworkers to join in.
Outside the election commission, every car passing by would honk its horn, creating a 24 hour cacophony to disturb those complicit in the fraud. At the Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, as at all government buildings, protesters maintained a 24 hour vigil (pictured below).
Of course, the main event was the rallies at night, where leaders gave speeches and celebrities such as Eurovision song contest winner Ruslana and boxing’s world champion Klitshchko brothers would stop by to show their support. Here’s how it appeared as I was standing in the middle of it:
Weak ties, Strong Ties and Triadic Closure
Of course, as Gladwell pointed out, revolutions such as the civil rights movement he chronicled in his article, predate social media by a considerable margin. This was also the case with the Orange Revolution, which used more primitive SMS’s and Internet forums. The revolutions that earlier brought down the Eastern Block employed fax machines.
However, emerging technology played a role in all of them. Gladwell downplays this aspect, saying that while so-called “weak ties” help convey information, it is the strong ties between actors that make the difference.
In the Orange Revolution, strong ties definitely played a role. If it weren’t for the personal relationships and charisma of those on the stage pictured below, it’s hard to imagine how the movement could have prevailed.
However, Gladwell misses a crucial aspect of social networks: They are dynamic, not static. Strong ties arise from weak ones in a process called triadic closure, which is essential to any healthy social space.
A hundred meters away from Independence Square, weak ties were on display in the tent city. Not only were thousands of students, most of whom were strangers before the events, camped out on Kiev’s main thoroughfare of Kreshchatyk in the freezing cold for the duration, but they used weak ties to get the word out about what they needed.
Thousands of other people, like my wife and I, would hear of specific needs and bring what was required to the tent city (below).
On top of that, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands were arriving from around the country each day to join in the protests. The growing mass of people was crucial to the ultimate peaceful resolution of the dispute.
These people needed shelter and thousands of Kiev citizens took strangers into their homes. Again, this was coordinated through SMS’s and Internet forums. With all do respect, Mr. Gladwell simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Weak ties perform an essential role in revolutions.
Networks vs. Hierarchy
Another point that Gladwell makes is that revolutions are driven by hierarchies and not networks. He argues that while networks merely confer relatively passive participation, it takes organization to get actual work done and keep the dream alive.
There were certainly important hierarchical organizations involved in the Orange Revolution. There was Pora, of course, a student’s movement and Yushchenko’s party, Nasha Ukraina as well as Yulia Tymosheno’s eponymous party.
However, none of these would have been sufficient without the informal networks that supported them. As I wrote in a previous post, the structure of networks is important, and even perhaps determinant. The government backed forces supporting Yanukovych certainly had an organizational edge, but were no match for the network of ordinary people that defeated them.
Again, Gladwell is mistaken and gravely so.
The Limits of Social Media
In his response, Biz Stone seemed similarly naive. He pointed to the many accolades his company, Twitter, had received for supporting social activism and stated proudly that: “Lowering the barrier to activism doesn’t weaken humanity, it brings us together and it makes us stronger.”
However, social media, much like SMS’s, Internet forums and fax machines, is merely a conduit and therefore value neutral. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has been notable for his social media efforts while journalists like Anna Politkovskaya continue to be beaten and murdered with abandon in his country. Reportedly, North Korea now has a Twitter account.
Social media is neither a necessary nor sufficient force for good or evil. Ultimately, it merely reflects and enables the intent of its participants.
Small Acts of Courage
For me personally, the Orange Revolution was easy, exciting and fun. Although, I wasn’t completely on the periphery (one of the things I was doing at the time was managing a prominent news brand), my efforts and involvement were relatively minor. Although there was palpable danger in the air for the first few days, that too subsided as the movement gained steam.
However, even for those who played more consequential roles, like the journalists I worked with or the students in the tent city, individual contributions were not nearly as important as the collective ones, like the informal ban of alcohol on the streets enforced by the admonishments of ordinary participants.
The true acts of courage, in fact, were relatively small in comparison to the events. A sign language translator on state run TV who stopped mid-sentence and publicly refused to continue to proliferate lies; an SBU General who took steps to prevent an armed crackdown by the Interior Ministry; and even the outgoing dictator who refused to end his reign in bloodshed.
It is in relatively small acts where true heroism lies. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose our revolutions, as journalists like Gladwell get to choose their stories. Drama and valor aren’t immediately mutually inclusive.
Much more important (and much harder) are everyday acts of fortitude, like keeping a business commitment that has ceased to be profitable, supporting a junior colleague devoid of clout or organizational importance, showing up at a hard meeting when it would be easier to delegate, or coming clean when it would be easier to obfuscate.
These things are far more difficult than most of what we did in the midst of the excitement of 2004.
And that’s where both Malcolm Gladwell and Biz Stone go wrong. Tweeting about Iran or Darfur doesn’t make you a good person, any more than recalling the struggles of the civil rights movement gives you the right to belittle the efforts of others. True courage has nothing to do with auspicious events, but in doing what is uncomfortable when no one is likely to notice.
And that’s how revolutions truly begin.