Forward by Emily May: I am not one for celebrity crushes, but boyohboy did I have one on Malcolm Gladwell. He was so cute! So smart! So breakthrough! And then one day he wrote an article for the New Yorker called “The Revolution will not be Tweeted.” Sigh. Like a ghost in the night, my little crush disappeared and was replaced by funders sending me the article and asking for a response. Gladwell’s article not only didn’t endorse the clear-and-present-revolution, it slowed us down by putting question marks in the minds of potential funders as to our efficacy. Thanks, Malcolm.
Enter Alex. A college senior, our 2011 summer intern, an incredible speech writer, interviewer, thinker, revolutionary and all around good guy. We were born in the same hospital in North Carolina, nine years apart. Alex wrote this piece for his class that takes on Gladwell better than I ever could. Read on, and rest easy that the next generation of thinkers is here. And they’re changing the way we change the world.
BY ALEX ALSTON
Street harassment, as defined on Hollaback!’s website, is a form of gender violence experienced overwhelmingly by women and LGBTQ persons. It can range from lewd comments to groping, to flashing or assault. It is also one of the “most pervasive” forms of gender violence in the world, and unfortunately, one of the least legislated against.1 Culturally accepted, street harassment is often thought of as something a woman should be proud of or at least accept because, “Well, that is what happens when you’re an attractive woman.” However, Hollaback!’s Executive Director, Emily May, is fighting for a world where everyone is safe and free from objection in public space. May has tapped into the power of social media and mobile technology so that victims of street harassment have an effective and safe response.
Stationed in Brooklyn, New York, Hollaback! started as a single blog on which harassed individuals could describe their experiences with harassment and even post photos of their harasser. Today, the organization has grown into a “young and sassy” world-wide movement led by grassroots activists from London to Jerusalem to Mumbai and the Czech Republic.2 Hollaback! site leaders, under the guidance of the New York office, tailor their sites as well as their involvement in the movement to end street harassment to their respective cultural environments, resources, and abilities. Taken as a whole Hollaback! is a network of separate but intricately intertwined activists who are voluntarily taking on the fight to make public space safe. New York City recently held the world’s first conference on street harassment, and May was invited to speak before the United Nations on the issue this past summer. What started as an idea among friends has grown into an unforeseeable global effort to create social change.
Of course, change rarely comes without tension and, speaking out against oppression is often just as risk-laden as it is subversive. The systemic implementation of this type of resistance invites even more backlash. Again, because street harassment is a culturally accepted form of gender violence, its challengers open the door for trouble from those invested in gender hegemonies. From individuals who consistently seek to bombard the site with negative and obscene comments (referred to as “trolls”), to those who would potentially visit physical harm on site leaders forcing them to remain anonymous, there are many threats to those involved with Hollaback! Indeed, some sites are located in areas of the world where women have considerably less social capital and power than they possess here in the West and speaking back against patriarchal oppression is downright dangerous. In these places, being involved with Hollaback! is what Malcolm Gladwell terms “high-risk activism.”3 Gladwell borrows Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam’s phrase “strong-tie” to describe the phenomenon of high-risk activism.4 This is a piece of his larger argument that social media cannot facilitate the type of hands on, high-risk activism that social change has always relied on. Focusing on examples of activism from the Black Freedom Struggle of the twentieth century, Gladwell charges that “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”5 After reading his piece, however, Emily May thought one thing, “He hasn’t heard of Hollaback!”6
To the extent Gladwell’s strong critique of social media and its relationship to activism helps us dispel the myth of a twitter revolution in Egypt or calls into question the idea of inevitable progress through Change.org petitions, it is valuable, even vital. He quotes historian Robert Darnton who has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past…”7 The narrative that “the new tools of social media have reinvented social activism” is, briefly put, misguided.8 Gladwell’s insight and critical interrogation of social media proves this. But the fact remains that Gladwell is simply too eager to lump all things “social media” into the categories of websites such as Facebook, Twitter, online petitions, donations, and the like. His well-intentioned skepticism of social media, (or lack of research) while illuminating, causes him to overlook any cases in which social media does in fact foster strong ties, high risk activism, and real social change. The case of Hollaback! is an obvious one.
“The evangelists of social media,” according to Gladwell, “…seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend…”9 He sets out to use the Greensboro sit-ins and the Freedom Summer in Mississippi as examples of how high risk activism is centered around strong human relationships. He cites the work of McAdam which maintains that there was correlation between the Freedom Summer volunteers who did not drop out despite the inescapable peril of their situation and those who had the most personal connection to the movement.10 His point, in summary, is that fighting for social change entails great risk at times, and a given individual is more likely to take that risk when he or she has a personal connection to what is going on. He does not see social media as capable of reproducing this type of connection. What Gladwell does not consider, however, is that one’s emotional stake is an issue is not limited to one’s circle of close friends. That is, no one is necessarily precluded from participating in high risk activism because they do not have a connection to an issue through another person. In the case of Hollaback!, street harassment is such a universal point of oppression for women across cultures, races, classes, and regions, fostering the personal connection (around the issue of street harassment), is a matter of articulating that shared experience. When asked about why Gladwell was wrong about Hollaback!’s brand of online activism May said, “He forgot that movement building has always been based on storytelling, and that storytelling creates great empathy. With empathy comes strong ties.”11 Even Gladwell himself would not argue that social media simply makes storytelling easier and more effective.
So then a forty year old working class immigrant from the Bronx can connect with an white Ph.D. student in the Czech Republic because both of these women know what it means to be degraded, embarrassed, or frightened in public by catcalls or groping. A common language is all these women need to feel the personal connection, the strong tie, (around the issue of street harassment) that Gladwell says is necessary for high risk activism. Hollaback! uses Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress for something other than what Gladwell is imagining when he says “online activism.” Bringing people with shared experiences together in safe spaces where personal connections can form and grow, where empathy can abound, is a vital part of social change. Strong ties are formed by shared experiences, not by immediate physical or social proximity alone. However, Gladwell is right in that immediate physical and social proximity (being a radical activist in Mississippi registering voters during the 60’s) are some of the factors responsible for shared experiences and the ensuing personal connection. Furthermore, a personal connection on an issue does not equate to being someone’s close friend. The examples Gladwell gives of the personal ties anchoring the Red Brigades in Italy and the mujahedeen in Afghanistan only tell half of the story. Those individuals, while clearly closely aligned around their method of political action, were not necessarily best of friends or even close acquaintances. So even if Hollaback! does not foster sprawling friendships it can still do the work of relationship building that is necessary to foment change.
Malcolm Gladwell’s second major point of contention with reading social media as a tool for social activism involves the fact that “Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies.”12 He uses the sit-in again as well as the Montgomery bus boycott as examples of how hierarchies are necessary when high-risk activism is involved because top down organization is essential. According to Gladwell, networks cannot function to make systemic changes. May simply thinks that he was unable envision a structure where people around the world who have never met would shift the paradigm from ‘think globally, act locally,’ to ‘collaborate globally, act locally.’13 He does concede that networks are the best structure for low-risk situations, citing Wikipedia as an example, but again, Gladwell is guilty of gross generalizations. His idea that networks and hierarchies are irreconcilable is almost purposefully polemical. When asked why, in her opinion, site leaders were willing to voluntarily undertake the work of Hollaback! without ever meeting its director, part of Emily’s response was:
They don’t have to hang out with me. I’m not their “boss” and most of them will never meet me. We built a platform so that people can take it and customize it to what they love to do — and what they think their community needs. Then they run with it — and when the work gets dangerous they know 150 plus [other site leaders] people around the world have got their back. That’s pretty powerful.14
Hollaback!’s structure is a network inside of a hierarchy. The Executive Director sits at the top and just under her is the International Movement Coordinator. The bloggers and site leaders are on the next rung of the ladder. From there, each site is led by one or more individuals who, aside from general Hollaback! guidelines, are free to approach the fight against harassment however they see fit. So if a site leader in France would like to participate in the local slut walk, no outside permission is necessary. This is the rule across the board (within reason obviously). If the site leaders of any given place can no longer keep it up, it simply “dies” with little to no effect on the others. The leadership style of the New York office is very hands off, and as a result the sites look to one another for advice and suggestions, but as equals. The Hollaback! community is very much a community. Finally, the idea that this community operating through social media is “not a natural enemy of the status quo” is something they might expect, quite frankly, from someone who cannot relate to the lived reality of gendered oppression as it pertains to harassment in public space.15
Street harassment is a result, not of sexual attraction, but of a power dynamic. In a patriarchal word, men exercise their power over women with embarrassment, intimidation, and violence in public places for all to see. Hollaback! is not a Band-Aid for battered egos, it is a movement to reconfigure the relationship between genders so as to end street harassment. Hollaback! would not be possible without the power of the nexus between social media and social activism. Malcolm Gladwell is not wrong, he simply wouldn’t know real social change being worked through social media if he saw it, and that is his point, it is rare. But it is happening.