Once in a while, you read something that irks you so much, that you have to vent in writing. I did this in 2009, when I read a terribly skewed article on teenage girls in an African newspaper; I posted it to my Facebook wall in anger, and lo and behold, STF Director Christen Brandt saw it, and that got the wheels turning for launching She’s the First.
I read an article in The New Yorker today that riled me up so much, because I thought it was an unfair assessment of social media’s power to effect social change, and it underestimates the impact that each of you who’ve fundraised or given to She’s the First have made. So even if The New Yorker doesn’t read my letter, I at least wanted to share it here — my personal views that come from a place of deep passion for She’s the First — and I invite you to agree/disagree in the comments and even write your own letter to The New Yorker. For starters, read the article “Small Change” here. (And if you ever write a letter to the editor that speaks to what She’s the First is all about, email it to us! We’ll publish it.)
Through a Retweet, I clicked through to “Small Change ” by Malcolm Gladwell today. I’m sure you knew promoting the article on social media would get a rise out of the very audience whom Gladwell undermines. I’ve read The Tipping Point and found it to be a fascinating explanation on why things as odd as Silly Bandz can sweep our culture, so I was surprised to find myself in such intense opposition with Gladwell on the power of social media to effect social change. I am a social media activist, the founder of She’s the First, a global grassroots movement to sponsor girls’ education in the developing world. I have an endless to-do list as I oversee our offline events, online multimedia, and strategic development—all done with passion, not pay, outside my full-time job—and writing Letters to Editors isn’t typically something I prioritize. But this article required it.
First, you should know that within 15 minutes of posting this article to my own Facebook page with commentary on how it irked me, I received three ‘likes’ from friends and two comments encouraging me to write this letter. And I will post this letter to my Facebook so that even if you don’t publish it, my peers will know how misunderstood our platform can be, and why we have to take the time to defend it–because it is what we will be remembered for someday.
Now here’s the tremendous fallacy I find with Mr. Gladwell’s article: why are we pitting offline action against online action? Since when have we had to pick one tactic over the other? Because in the She’s the First movement of 1,738 Facebook friends and 1,205 Twitter followers who came together in less than a year, activism is about bringing together the best of offline and online action. Our supporters are hosting creative, affordable fundraisers in one night–benefit concerts, parties with purpose–to collect small donations that add up to one-year sponsorships for a girl’s education . We use Twitter and Facebook to inspire each other with our fundraising ideas and to promote our events to our local communities, sometimes also attracting donations via mail or Internet from those who can only be there in spirit. I appreciate that Mr. Gladwell sees the strengths of social media (“Social networks are effective at increasing participation,” he writes), and I agree with the flaws that he points out: it “lessen[s] the level of motivation that participation requires.” Yes, it’s easy to get someone to click their support, and not all 1,738 of our Facebook friends are going to have the initiative to host their own fundraiser, but you cannot underestimate the influence of your cause spreading through their networks.
I look at She’s the First’s GIRLS WHO ROCK benefit concert held this summer in NYC–it raised $6,000 to sponsor three Tanzanian girls in AfricAid’s Kisa Project. My co-founder, Cynthia Hellen, was a young woman who started following @shesthefirst on Twitter. That one click turned into something huge, and let me tell you, I will take 100 “likes” that may lead to just a supportive smile for one Cynthia Hellen to come our way. GIRLS WHO ROCK had a life-changing impact on these three Tanzanian girls, whom you can read about on our blog, because their sponsorship program includes computer training. They write us at least once a month; we post the letters and our concert supporters write back. Any reader of Nicholas Kristof will tell you that this is how you get people to care about and empathize with the tragedies in the world–you connect them to one face. My activism is peaceful and a lot of time it involves the color pink. But you know what, it’s working. We are sending girls to school to be the first in their families to graduate; we are asking young people in the US to recognize what they are first to achieve in their families and communities as a result of their education, and then to pay it forward. No kidnappings, no killings, no houses burning down, no bomb scares, no beating of volunteers, no arrests, no sit-ins. My question to Mr. Gladwell is, when did violence become barometer for the strength of activism?
Mr. Gladwell is looking back on the civil rights movement with 50 years of hindsight. How can you possibly judge the power of Twitter and Facebook when literally 10 years ago, I was sitting in my freshman year English class afraid to raise my hand because I was so shy, and now I’m writing to The New Yorker to disagree with one of their star writers? Keep in mind that the sit-ins became an iconic part of the civil rights movement and spread so quickly because of the power of the reigning media at the time–newspaper, radio, and TV. Mr. Gladwell looks back in awe that “it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter”–why of course. In 2060, some writer is going to say that what our generation is doing now on social media was so impactful, and we did it without the help of some amazing new technology yet to come.
My final problem with “Small Change” is that Mr. Gladwell chose the most flimsy and unflattering closing anecdote to defend his point–five paragraphs about a teenage girl recovering her lost Sidekick phone through social media. Really? If you think that is a representation of the revolution that a racially and culturally diverse group of teenagers and 20somethings are building online, then you haven’t been on DoSomething.org, which has thousands of projects harnessing the power of online to drive world-changing projects offline . Why don’t you tell the story of the New Jersey mayor who took the time to Tweet his vision for his city, attracting $100 million for his school system from the 26-year-old founder of Facebook? Why don’t you write about how charity : water raised $250,000 on Twitter last year to build wells for clean drinking water in Ethiopia–a change that was video recorded and sent by satellite for all donors to witness?
My advice to the young activists of the world: study and respect history, read brilliant New York Times bestselling books like Mr. Gladwell’s, but ultimately break the mold. There have never been social media tools like this before; we’re the first generation to test them out, to make the mistakes but also the breakthroughs. Bono said this in his 2004 U Penn Commencement Speech: “The fact is that this generation–yours, my generation–that can look at the poverty, we’re the first generation that can look at poverty and disease, look across the ocean to Africa and say with a straight face, we can be the first to end this sort of stupid extreme poverty, where in the world of plenty, a child can die for lack of food in it’s belly. We can be the first generation.”
Mr. Gladwell, of course we have not forgotten what activism is. We are forging what it is to become.