The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised…The revolution will be live.
-Gil Scott Heron
Last October, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece for the New Yorker titled “Why The Revolution will not be Tweeted.” In the piece he critiqued the overestimation of the role of twitter, facebook and other social media sites in international activist movements. He argued that social media does not forge strong ties and therefore networks based in those media do not provide the foundation for the kind of heroic activism of the sit-in movement, for example.
Although Gladwell has powerfully popularized important research on opportunity, inequality, social change, and their relationships to the world in which we live, that time he was wrong. The new media advocates who talked back to Gladwell in the immediate aftermath of his piece have been proven right. If we didn’t know then, we know now: The revolution is most likely to be tweeted, but not televised.
With his title, Gladwell was playing upon the words of the late great singer and spoken word artist Gil Scott Heron. In the poem, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” Heron, with his classic incisive irony and unflinching critique of injustice, racism and all forms of systematic oppression, made a strong claim: Passive consumption of corporate controlled media will not be the vehicle for social transformation. And Heron was right. Whatever we choose to call this spreading wave of protest against the grotesque wealth of the few and the devastating impoverishment of the many, it indeed is not being televised. The mainstream media has failed to, or been alarmingly slow to cover protest in the past year. While thousands upon thousands raise their voice in dissent, they are but a soundbyte here and there on 24 hour news channels. A blip on the screen.
And this is why I usually keep my television off and my laptop open. In particular, I keep a close eye on my twitter feed. Because if you follow the right people on twitter, you can have real time information on all sorts of inspiring activism and organizing that is taking place around the globe. And by sharing this information with others, we are able to put pressure on mainstream media to cover democratic movements, as we are finally seeing with growing number of pieces on Occupy Wall Street (a truly global mobilization), and as we witnessed in the final hour news coverage of Troy Davis’s unjust execution. Even more importantly, in the cycles of information and communication that are shared on twitter, we are able to learn about grassroots organizing both near and far and hopefully realize that the numbers of people who care about creating a better world are far greater than we might otherwise have imagined.
Gladwell’s point that social media is not a stand in for organizing is well-taken. Signing a petition online, or retweeting a powerful article is not the equivalent of face to face and sustained organizing around social justice issues. But he missed Heron’s point, and the point of the plethora of organizers who take to social media to spread the word about their causes. Communication technologies are necessary tools for sharing the kind of news that gets people out of their seats. Mainstream media blackouts are impotent in the face of digital age couriers, carrying word like modern day David Walkers, Ida B. Wells’ or Paul Reveres. For today’s freedom fighters, twitter is one extremely useful technology. So if it’s going to happen, the revolution indeed will be tweeted.