The larger the group and more dispersed the group, the more complex the factors involved in affecting momentous change. Whether it's a large organization trying to shift gears in recognizition of a changing marketplace or citizens of a Middle East country primed for new leadership, getting from point A (where we are now) to point B (where we want to be), the conditions have to be in place to support the change.
Too often, we overlook the channels through which information moves, sometimes going so far as to focus too much on strategy and implore people to not get hung up on channels. Malcolm Gladwell famously insisted that social media channels like Twitter and Facebook can't be a catalyst for revolution, arguing that "high risk social activism requires deep roots and strong ties."
Gladwell took a lot of heat (and rightly so), but stuck to his guns after Egyptians, mobilizing over Facebook and Twitter, ousted three-decade dictator Hosne Mubarak. "People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other," he wrote in a brief New Yorker blog post in February. "How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place."
I disagreed when I read his first essay and I disagreed with the update. But, despite reading volumes of arguments against his insistence that channels aren't interesting, I couldn't quite put my finger on why I so vehemently dissented.
Now I can. And it's the American Revolution that has helped me clarify my thinking.
I'm a fan of the American Revolution. When I'm not engaged in work, family or music, I'm probably reading a book dealing with the Revolution. I devour the stuff. Anything in U.S. history from the Mayflower through the War of 1812 is like a narcotic to me. I can't get enough.
The book I'm reading now offers a fresh and unique take on the Revolution. In American Insurgents, American Patriots, T.H.Breen (William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern Unviersity) hypothesizes that common folk were at least as responsible for the Revolution as the founding fathers so often credited with it, if not moreso. We may be repulsed by the insurgencies and the horrors they inflict in faraway lands, but Breen argues that we forget, here in modern America, that our own origins were the result of similar actions by countless farmers, shopkeepers and craftsmen, most of whose names have long been lost to history.
I was reading American Insurgents last night in a Hartford hotel bed (on my Kindle, of course), starting a new chapter about a third of the way through the book when I sat up and read several pages again. And again. It was one of those epiphanous moments when clouds lift and clarity is granted. Here's Breen's concise summation of several preceding pages:
Newspapers-a relatively innovative form of communication in eighteenth-century provincial society-helped persuade colonial readers that no matter where they happened to live, they had a personal stake in what occured in Boston. During 1774 and 1775 an unprecedented exchange of political intelligence gained momentum, and long before the Continental Congress got around to declaring independence, a surge of shared information convinced Americans that they could in fact trust other Americans whom they had never met.
In other words, the strong ties Gladwell insists must exist at the core of upheaval of revolutionary scale don't work their magic in a vacuum. The colonists in Boston-which was suffering a shutdown of its port and an occupation of British troops in the aftermath of the Tea Party-didn't have weak ties with colonists in, say, South Carolina. They had no ties beyond the fact that they were all colonial British subjects under the rule of King George III.
The bonds were created by the shared experiences reported in newspapers. In the South, where the Coercive Acts weren't being enforced by the Crown, reading reports of what was happening to Boston's residents led to a general understanding that it was altogether possible that the same thing could happen to them, too. If not for newspapers-the newfangled communciation channel of the era-many outside of the hotbed colony of Massachussetts may have been tempted to dismiss what was happening so many miles away rather than embrace the Boston cause as their own, larger American cause.
"The success of the Americans in reaching out to one another owed a lot to the creation of effective networks of communication," Breen argues. "The dissemination of information about local incidents of resistance or about ordinary colonists who had experienced severe hardships in the name of American liberty served to promote bonds of sympathy, the key to effective mobilization." (The emphasis is mine, for what I hope are obvious reasons.)
The parallels are striking. Social media are as new to inhabitants of the twenty-first-century as newspapers were to those of the eighteenth. And through social channels, individuals are able to create a common shared experience directly, rather than relying on the filter of the press, and they can engage one another over those tales rather than simply read a detached account of them. They can use the channels to mobilize rather than have them serve as just the catalyst for mobilization. The outcome, though, is the same. Again, here's Breen:
For political information to become a powerful mobilizing force-as it did during the two years before independence-it had to spark the sympathy of colonists...Shared knowledge, therefore, assumed a grasp of the basic facts, the punitive character of the Coercive Acts, for example-as well as an empathy for the suffering of others who did not seem all that different from one's own neighbors. The emotional content of political intelligence encouraged people to act on what they thought had happened to others. This was precisely what occured on the eve of independence. Colonists reading about events in Boston persuaded themselves that ordinary people who lived there were suffering for all Americans. Their cause was the cause of any person capable of compassion for the victims of political oppression. As with other insurgencies in more modern times, the ability to imagine the condition of strangers-again, a function of effective communication-provided the emotional foundation for united resistance.
(Again, that's my emphasis in the preceding paragraph.)
As newspapers played this role in pre-revolutionary America, social media has played it in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle East hot spots. Gladwell is right, of course, that the conditions need to exist in order for people to have stories to share. But without the communication channels, as Breen says, they remain highly localized stories and don't unite people under a common cause.
The role communication channels play in affecting change cannot be understated; they are anything but uninteresting. The lessons from the use of these channels can be gleaned by anybody willing to pay attention to them, from activist leaders to the dictators faced with growing opposition, and even corporate executives seeking to drive change in their organizations-or employees and their advocates who want organizational change in spite of leadership transigence.
Had Gladwell lived in 1775, I suspect he would have dismissed the role of newspapers (or minimized them as the least interesting dimension of the Revolution). Shrugging off the communication channels employed in momentous change, though, leaves a vital piece of the puzzle in the shadows and allows the most unfortunate aspects of history to repeat themselves. Ultimately, channels matter at least as much as the information and stories conveyed through them.