LoyarBorak #1: Is Twitter Useless at Social Activism? (Part 1)

LoyarBorakThis is a new series by LoyarBurok – “LoyarBorak”. Selected issues will be discussed by a chosen number of panelists. It aims to provide a more informal, bite-sized presentation of ideas and thoughts.

In this first LoyarBorak, which comes in two parts, the question is on the effectiveness of Twitter in social action. It is inspired by a piece written by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker.

Syazwina Saw has prepared a response (prefacing each section in italics), which will be used as a base for this LoyarBorak. Adrian Chew, Edmund Bon Tai Soon, Marcus van Geyzel and Syahredzan Johan share their feelings on the subject with Syazwina having the final say. Please feel free to continue the borak session in the comments section below.

If you are interested to partake in our upcoming borak sessions, take a number and queue, but drop Marcus (who by the way, initiated this, and activated, organised and mobilised the Borakkers – all by Twitter and e-mails only) an email here: [email protected].

Crush Social Media


With the advent of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, the challenge for software developers it seems has become to produce the most penetrable and user-friendly device with which to share one’s entire life with the world. Suddenly, life experiences and great musings are condensed into 140 characters or less. Only the most avid blog-writers remain – for the masses, quick, live and ADHD is the way to go. Is it any surprise that the Hollywood community has embraced Twitter whole-heartedly?

Iran’s 2009 federal elections brought the Twitterverse into an entirely new playing field. Amid claims of tampered votes and election results, Tehran exploded into a wave of protests as supporters of the opposition led by Mousavi took to the streets in waves. All other means of communication blocked, citizens of Iran took to Twitter. And suddenly, it became more than just Ashton Kutcher getting a million mosquito nets to fight malaria, or Miley Cyrus sending lovenotes to Perez Hilton – it became a Movement. Twitter had become a Thing.

Twitter has since become a reputable primary source for many; a place to scour for quotes, a scary insight into the minds of politicians and celebrities, and most importantly, ordinary folk. Along with that, major news networks have started reporting tweets, and brought along with it this claim of Twitter and Facebook being agents of change, triggers for revolutions.


Twitter and Facebook, in the context of digital activism are fairly useless on their own. They are merely new mediums of communication that have somehow provided a quantum leap in the efficacy of information dissemination, much like how Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press led to the printing revolution and the democratisation of knowledge.

But the true agents of change aren’t printing machines or social networking applications. It’s always been people. People are the real catalysts for revolutions. At most, Twitter lowers the barrier to activism – making it easier for information to reach the masses and for people to decide how active they want to be in support of a cause.


Let us remind ourselves of the context in which Gladwell wrote the piece by asking a few questions.

Firstly, why did he caution us about the limitations of social media in galvanising people towards high-risk activity?

Secondly, was he – (i) describing the use of social media tools (and I accept that they have revolutionised the way people have become involved in issues) and explaining the Twitter phenomenon in relation to different types of activity; (ii) analysing the impact of Twitter (i.e. what it can or cannot do) and correcting misguided perceptions of it; or (iii) predicting its future use?

He was writing to warn us that we have today overstated the effectiveness of social media tools, and that we have become too comfortable. Thinking that in expressing our thoughts online we have, so to speak, “done our part” has made us complacent about organising and mobilising communities. That is how we should view Gladwell’s piece.

I preface my borak to say what Facebook and Twitter are and have achieved before going on to say what they are not. They are now indispensable channels of communication. Hark back to the days when we were excited about the fax machine. We could send and receive documents instantaneously. E-tools (i.e. e-mails and e-groups) then transmitted information even faster. Increased speed, better delivery mechanisms, and more voices, conversations and stories at the shortest amount of time. Do not doubt that I embrace these as given facts.

But is that it? No. It is said, and I agree that, e-tools have democratised the way we communicate with those in power, generated armies of people motivated to work on various causes and encouraged self-activism. However, e-tools did not by themselves cause these things to happen. They were used strategically, and well, by organisations and initiatives in tandem with other tools.


A discussion on the meaning of “social media” could, in itself, take up an entire article. Suffice to say here that the key element which distinguishes social media from “traditional” media is, perhaps obviously, the interactive element (compare Twitter to a newspaper, for example).

My initial reaction to Gladwell’s piece was that he was stating the obvious. He basically took the views of a minority (that Twitter can spawn revolutions) and used it as stick with which to beat the entire medium. Twitter is a communication channel. Like the printed word, telephones, the internet, mobiles, SMSes, and blogs.

The effectiveness of a tool is entirely dependent on its users.


I think all of us here are regular Twitteratis (tweeps? twits?) so we certainly vouch for the addictiveness of this social media tool. Twitter has opened up new avenues of interaction, the exchanging ideas and propagating one’s thoughts. Interacting with someone you’ve never met, with a celebrity or a politician or someone thousands of miles away.

If nothing, Twitter has changed how we communicate to each other.


I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s attacking Twitter itself – I mean, the man has an account. I like to think he’s targetting his audience (and also his more common detractors): the largely-white, upper-middle-class bourgeoisie. They’re the same ones who adopted the Iranian protests as their own “fight”, got all caught up in politics removed from its context; the ones who keep saying, again and again, that Twitter is crucial to activism. Even reputable mass media has taken to Twitter for quotes and, God help us all, “news”.

Twitter’s overrated by the media and sometimes the Twitterati, and it’s not hard to see why Gladwell wants to beat it with a stick, if only to knock some sense into our heads.

He's Twittering


Gladwell seems to dispute the efficacy of Twitter as a tool for activism, dismissing it by regaling a tale of a Wall Street broker who got his phone back from a young teenage girl and comparing it to the internet-less impact of the civil rights movement in 1960s America. Social activists are miffed by his claim that Twitter is seen to have “reinvented social activism”; they say he’s missed the point or that he’s too quick to judge.


It’s just fancy footwork by Gladwell in describing the effectiveness of activism as based on “strong ties” versus “weak ties” or “high-risk” versus “low-risk”. His models are overly simplistic. I tried to reconcile these models with two recent local happenings: the “1M Malaysians Reject 100-storey Mega Tower” Facebook campaign and the use of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (MCMC Act) to quash online freedom of expression.

Admit it, thanks to digital activism, almost everyone has an opinion now about the Warisan Merdeka project – whether for or against. Despite its success in getting the Government to pause and rethink its plans, this form of activism would still fall under Gladwell’s “low-risk” and “weak-ties” model. The increased frequency of the Government’s resort to the MCMC Act to prosecute these “armchair activists” for merely being “annoying” also shows that “weak ties” don’t necessarily equate with “low risk”.


Gladwell’s crux proposition is that “we seem to have forgotten what activism is”. In using case studies, one usually takes extreme examples to drive home the point and Gladwell adopted “high-risk activism” to enunciate his. It leaves us the challenge of defining and re-defining activism. Is speech intensely expressed on Facebook and Twitter activism? If we accept that activism includes writing online to the editor a letter of disgust or petitioning online the release of a prisoner, then practically everyone is involved in activism (which is a positive).

But I think it would have been much clearer to replace the word “activism” with “mobilisation” or “organisation” or “a movement”. Winning people over to speak to power, and then to shift the balance of power away from the establishment requires numbers who are committed to the cause and to the core.

Today, we think mobilising is sending an e-mail to an e-group, creating a Facebook event or tweeting a call-out per se. It is not. You may get a group of people regularly coming for meetings, events and protests based on your shout-outs but this would not be sustainable. Ask how many total strangers communicating on the internet would come out to protest against the Menara Warisan Merdeka or coalesce into a civil society group opposing the development?

I take the romanticised idea that mobilisation is an art of which expression is only one component, and organising movements cannot be done online via IP addresses.


It is quite telling that Gladwell’s examples of “real” activism are from the 1960s-70s. Times have changed. A lot. Using those illustrations to swat away the significance of social media is akin to someone in the 1970s saying that rallies, printed material and the telephone were useless because activists in the 1920s didn’t use them.

Amusingly, Gladwell writes: “Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model.” I wonder whether he wrote this tongue-in-cheek, as that is exactly the kind of thing his critics accuse him of. There is no doubt that Gladwell is one of the most intelligent and innovative thinkers of our time, but it also has to be conceded that he conveniently chooses facts and illustrations which best suit his theories.


I think the word “activism” itself needs a re-think. If activism is defined by the actions of civil rights activists in 1960s America, then Gladwell may be right.

But these days one does not need to leave one’s laptop to be an activist (defined by Dictionary.com as “an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, esp. a political cause”).

I give you an example – my sister recently changed her Twitter avatar purple in support of anti-LBGT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender) bullying. Sure, it’s not the Woolsworth protest of Greensbro, but can we argue that she’s any less of an activist simply because the statement she chose to make is in cyberspace? Is her online statement effective? I don’t know, but at the very least her followers would know the problem exists and some people may want to do something about it.


I have to agree with Marcus on Gladwell’s cut-and-paste style of journalism, and yes, he oversimplifies the scenario, and perhaps even the meaning of “activism”. I guess what we should ask is, is our definition of activism actually effective? It brings to mind Robert Fisk’s article just after the Iranian protests, where he commented on the effectiveness of candlelight vigils, saying that if Iranians were truly looking for a revolution via Mousavi, lighting candles in the streets just won’t cut it.

There’s sending a message, and then there’s delivering it. What’s the point of clicking “LIKE” on a Facebook page if the government’s just going to swat your say like a fly?

LoyarBorak continues in Part 2.

Adrian sits in a room somewhere in Sarawak watching a dying river flow. Yellowing books on his shelves and blank sheets of paper on his desk, he continues to write if only to search for his voice, despite stillborn sentences never filling up a page. Follow his journey to becoming a writer on The Reading Monk and @Reading_Monk.

Edmund continues various escape techniques in his attempts to be rid of Lord Bobo’s control and the Bar Council’s influence. He is on a crusade to abolish the institution of marriage and build love movements though he thinks love is an illusion. And so he tweets @edmundbon.

Marcus is a corporate/commercial solicitor in Kuala Lumpur, who tweets @vangeyzel. He believes that the only certainty in life is that everything can be explained by the transperambulation of pseudo-cosmic antimatter.

Syahredzan is a young lawyer and a partner at a legal firm in Kuala Lumpur. He fancies himself to be a political critic and social commentator. In truth, he is just another Malaysian who is far too opinionated. He is passionately patriotic, although not in the conventional flag-waving way. He believes that Malaysia still has a lot of unfulfilled potential if only its people learned to unite rather than divide. @syahredzan is his handle on Twitter.

Syazwina spends her days subediting legal commentary, her nights studying science philosophy, and the time in between tweeting @syazwinasaw. She rants for a better Malaysia, or so she hopes.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Posts by

Posted on 4 November 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

Read more articles posted by .

Read this first: LB Terms of Use