What Internet activism looks like

Anil Dash hits one so far out of the park it attains orbit in this response to a silly Malcolm Gladwell column that decried Internet activism as incapable of achieving meaningful change. It's all must-read stuff, but here's the bit that made me want to stand up and salute:
Today, Dale Dougherty and the dozens of others who have led Maker Faire, and the culture of "making", are in front of a movement of millions who are proactive about challenging the constrictions that law and corporations are trying to place on how they communicate, create and live. The lesson that simply making things is a radical political act has enormous precedence in political history; I learned it well as a child when my own family's conversation after a screening of Gandhi turned to the salt protests in India, which were first catalyzed in my family's home state of Orissa, and led to my great-grandfather walking alongside Gandhi and others in the salt marches to come. Today's American Tea Partiers see even the original "tea party" largely as a metaphor, but the salt marches were a declaration of self-determination as expressed through manufacturing that took the symbolism of the Boston Tea Party and made it part of everyday life.

To his last day, my great-grandfather wore khadi, the handspun clothing that didn't just represent independence from the British Raj in an abstract way, but made defiance of onerous British regulation as plain as the clothes on one's back. At Maker Faire this weekend, there were numerous examples of clothing that were made to defy laws about everything from spectrum to encryption law. It would have been only an afternoon's work to construct a t-shirt that broadcast CSS-descrambling code over unauthorized spectrum in defiance of the DMCA.

And if we put the making movement in the context of other social and political movements, it's had amazing success. In city after city, year after year, tens of thousands of people pay money to show up and learn about taking control of their media, learning, consumption and communications. In contrast to groups like the Tea Party, the crowd at Maker Faire is diverse, includes children and adults of all ages, and never finds itself in conflict with other groups based on identity or politics. More importantly, the jobs that many of us have in 2030 will be determined by young people who attended a Maker Faire, in industries that they've created. There is no other political movement in America today with a credible claim at creating the jobs of the future.

Make The Revolution


  1. I’ve actually avoided the Maker Faire and the movement growing around them because I assumed a conservative outlook would be automatically stereotyped as being pro-corporation, and I’d be instantly suspect, unwelcome, made to feel I should be silent about my politics.

    This article suggests the opposite is true… can anyone attending a Maker Faire or active in the movement attest to the assertion that it “never finds itself in conflict with other groups based on identity or politics”?

    1. WTF?

      Who gives a damn who you vote for as long as you MAKE something, and enjoy seeing and learning about what others are making?

      For that matter, how would anyone KNOW you are a conservative, or who you vote for, if you were to go to a Maker Faire?

      It’s about making things, and encouraging others to make things, not carrying some kind of ideological baggage.

      1. This post specifically deals with political issues, casting the Maker movement as one opposing certain laws, and the original post is the one making comparisons to other social and political movements, talking about taking control of education and the media…

        All I’m asking is whether someone can verify the apparent perception of Making as a social movement, from this article, is actually as non-ideological as the post claims.

    2. spool32, how exactly would you have a “conservative outlook” at Maker Faire? Dress in a suit? Frown at long-haired nerds? Laugh derisively at the Life Size Mouse Trap for not having a written business plan? Stand in the middle of the Fabrication Tent and start ranting about taxes?

      That’s right, you should feel that you should be silent about your politics. At Maker Faire, you enjoy the exhibitions, you maybe buy a few things, collect literature, learn a few things, network a bit. You do not start an argument about politics, religion, sexual preference, sports, law, or anything. Maker Faire isn’t about any of those things. It’s about making stuff. Just don’t be an loud-mouthed asshat, and you’ll be fine. If, on the other hand, you feel you can’t enjoy a demonstration of a Maker Bot without engaging the booth folks in a discussion about free trade and labor unions… what the hell are you doing at Maker Faire anyway?

      At Maker Faire NY, there was a large Ford display. Makers didn’t start throwing clods of dirt at the cars or pulling their pants down and shaking their rears at the Ford people. Some visited the exhibit. Some didn’t. There wasn’t any conflict. Why should there be? We do our thing; they do theirs.

      There were plenty of representatives from the corporate world, on both sides of exhibits. They were treated the same as any other person, because they acted just like any other person. Even *I* was dressed in a suit. A 19th century suit, but a suit nevertheless ;)

      Anyway, so I’m really not sure how you could possibly be unwelcome unless you make yourself unwelcome by means of egregious behavior…

      1. That’s exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to hear – thanks very much for the reply. When something is framed as a transformational social movement, I assume politics will be out in front – it’s good to get some confirmation that I’ll be able to enjoy and participate without a political litmus test or pressure to subscribe to a particular set of assumptions (Corporations Bad springs to mind).

  2. In city after city, year after year, tens of thousands of people pay money to show up and learn about taking control of their media, learning, consumption and communications.

    To what end?

    In contrast to groups like the Tea Party, the crowd at Maker Faire is diverse, includes children and adults of all ages, and never finds itself in conflict with other groups based on identity or politics.

    Social signaling, not social change. We’re us. We’re not that other tribe of monkeys over there. Hoot. Hoot. It’s not a revolution, it’s a Shriner convention, or a biker rally, or a Dead concert. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We are monkeys after all, and monkeys are social animals that need their tribal affiliations. But at least the Shriners and biker gangs are self-aware enough to know what they’re doing.

    1. We are monkeys after all, and monkeys are social animals that need their tribal affiliations.

      Not always. Some people work by going to other tribes, and then flaunting the fact they don’t belong.

  3. It’s a great quote — and a fine blog posting — but I’m not entirely sure what making has to do with tweeting; in other words, I don’t think he really responds to the point that Gladwell was making (which was that what someone is willing to do is related to the strength of the social ties of the people involved).

    I think, if anything, the “maker revolution” lends strength to Gladwell’s position: people who make amazing things like getting together, not just tweeting about it. So is it possible that Gladwell is right, that if there weren’t the face-to-face fairs and the connections made there, if instead folks just talked about what they did on “social media,” they would be doing less amazing stuff?

    I also don’t see what was silly about Gladwell’s article. It seemed thought out and reasoned to me.

    Maybe I just haven’t had enough coffee today…

  4. I thought Malcolm Gladwell’s column was rather well written and well thought-out. I did rather like ‘Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model.’

    Furthermore, said solipsists probably rather skew the world to their own interests. If the Internet has enabled the Maker movement, that’s all well and good, but if your exciting new movement actually has less widespread interest and impact than, say, gardening, it’s still not a world-beater.

    More fundamentally, by lowering the bar as to what constitutes ‘Internet activism making a meaningful change’, it becomes more or less meaningless. If attending a Maker Faire counts as meaningful change, using the Internet to do your shopping and communicate is surely far bigger form of Internet activism.

    On the other hand, if you’re looking at people who are pushing for real change by doing real activism, they do exist on the Internet. Look at The Pirate Bay and Wikileaks, for example. And what are they? Small groups of people with close ties, just as Gladwell says.

  5. One could reasonably ask if the maker movement could exist without the Internet.

    But one could also reasonably ask: “would it need to?”

    I think back on my childhood, before computers and video game, and that’s what kids did (at least what we did): make things. They didn’t even need to be talked into it by their parents; they wanted to (unlike many kids today–mine included–who don’t seem to do it on their own. They need unless a well-meaning adult to “facilitate” it.

  6. Giving a child in a slum in the ‘Third’ World access to knowledge on how to efficiently grow food for her whole family is one of the most ‘subversive’ things the internet does:

  7. Um…I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice that Dash’s refutation actually unintentionally supports Gladwell’s argument.

  8. Dash clearly reacted emotionally to Gladwell’s article, or he might have realized that most of what he is saying supports Gladwell’s distinction between networks and hierarchies. Gladwell’s article, far from silly, was well reasoned and sober – just not flattering to those who see the internet as the solution to all social ills, the Singularity just around the corner.

    For all Dash’s talk about copyright infringement being a million acts of civil disobedience, you can’t ignore the fact that none of this has had the slightest effect on the law. It’s still illegal – people are just more comfortable with it because everyone is doing it.

  9. I think Gladwell is correct. Maker Faire is indeed a Good Thing, but it’s not particularly revolutionary. Gladwell points out that most people engaging in the “Twitter Revolution” are doing so out of a sense of being able to “be a member” with little personal risk. His opposite examples are of people who had everything to lose, including their lives in many of the examples.

    Makers will make things regardless of whether they have a fair, or a club, or any other social glue. Those who aren’t interested in making things are going to remain consumers of finished goods. We are creatures of habit, and so by and large, we remain in our comfort zones: occasions where we make the personal effort to change our habits are few and far between. Look at how many people resolve to eat less and exercise more every New Year’s Eve; and yet gym owners tell us over and over again that while January is a hot month for new member sales, the gym is back to normal population numbers by the end of March.

    Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and a whole host of other well known actors did a lot to raise the level of conversation about the ethos of making, but their efforts have been ongoing since the 60s, and yet we’re (as a nation) throwing things away at a rate that outpaces just about everyone else on Earth.

    I’d love it to be otherwise, but a revolution is not Maker Faire.

  10. POW! ZOOM!!

    Those of you who might remember Wayne Greene (founder of Byte and Kilobaud mags back in the day) might remember that he traveled around the country for years talking about how we were losing our edge in electronics, losing the industry we created, and losing the kids who could fix that. He was right of course. Maker Faire is a terrific step in fixing that, and also in encouraging people of all ages to find out that ‘hacking’ means something positive: rolling your own and how sweet it is.

  11. its not as if the “Maker movement” is really anything new. as noted in comment #13, the whole earth catalog/shelter publications axis was promoting this since the late 1960’s or early 1970’s – all that has changed is that a substantial part of the attention gaze has shifted to contemporary electronics and software rather than the kinds of soft tech that was more in vogue in, say, 1973. and long before that, we had william morris in the UK and the rest of the arts & crafts revival, and many other examples worlwide.

    at any particular point in time, there are people advocating less specialization of labor, more hands-on living, more disintermediation (thank you Paul Hawken), more do-it-yourself. its not a revolution, or a movement: its just a way of being within a broader society in which all these things are viewed skeptically.

    the notion that any of this represents a revolution in anything like the sense of ghandi’s work in india, or the overthrow of apartheid in south africa, or the US civil rights movement, or the suffragettes … i’m sorry, but as much as i’ve been a part of “the maker movement” for the last 30 years, this claim is just myopic and ignorant and frankly, if i’d ever had the guts to be a part of a real political movemet, i think i’d find it offensive.

    1. Sorry Paul, I don’t see it that way. I’ve been around long enough to have seen Radio Shack put stores all over the country that stocked hundreds of parts, and put out thick, free catalogs with thousands. That had all gone away “in 30 years”, as has general knowledge of electronics, online electronics forums (scarce as hen’s teeth), and ways to get parts apart from huge companies like Allied.

      Maker Faire / Arduino / & ilk is not a continuance, it’s a resurgence. It’s picking up the pieces that surface-mount ruined and doing it with general-purpose programmables. Matter of fact a well-known (scarce) forum started hiring writers last week.

  12. I attended NY Maker Faire this last Sunday, and I have to agree with some other commenters: it’s a pleasant scene where some good things are happening. Is it revolutionary?

    By my standards, no. By my standards, it would be a joke to call the Make scene a ‘revolution’ of any sort. Naturally, whether you agree with me will depend on your definitions.

    If to you ‘revolution’ means a significant change in the prevailing socioeconomic order, I must believe you’d agree with me. The DIY / Make scene is against certain business practices, but it does not by any stretch necessitate a change in business generally (as indicated by the dominant presence at the Faire of auto, media, etc. corporations.)

    It’s easy to imagine a world like ours in all other respects – massive injustice, environmental catastrophe, etc. – but which is Maker friendly. People of privilege Make things and post stuff online about them. They have conquered intellectual property restrictions. The business model of transnational corporations has shifted from selling final products to selling some products and some parts. But society’s fundamental organization hasn’t changed. Parts are sourced in destructive and exploitive ways; massive disparities in wellbeing abound, etc.

    Now, if you’re arguing that most people want to -use- the Make ethos as a step in the right direction, fine. But that means Make isn’t a revolution in itself. It’s just a step in the right direction. But for people like Dash, if I understand him, Make is the means and the end – it is the ‘revolution’. I should hope many people see this as lacking.

  13. I read the “silly” Malcolm Gladwell column in this week’s New Yorker, and I thought it really good and insightful. I would love to hear what Cory found silly about it.

    Gladwell whole point is that there is a distinction between click on “Join” on the Save Darfur Facebook page, or, say, attending a Maker Faire, and actually willing to risk your life for a cause you believe in with your closest friends at your side.

    Actually risking your life by, say, taking part in demonstrations in the South during the Civil Rights era, requires strong ties to those around you, those you are standing shoulder to shoulder with. Attending a Maker Faire? Well, the commitment is, what? Taking the afternoon to go see a fun fair with a bunch of neat stalls? The commitment is minimal, the risk is nil, so it’s perfectly reasonable that I will go only on the say-so of my weak internet ties.

    What is the comparison here? Did Cory or Anil Dash read Gladwell’s column?

  14. I only take issue with Gladwell’s statement below:

    “Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.”

    Gladwell needs to either define his terms–network and hierarchy–or stop talking about them so generally. Does he really mean to contend that no networks have rules and procedures? Does he really want to say on record that networks are strictly the ‘opposite’ of hierarchies? I doubt it since none of these statements are generally true. Instead, I think this is Gladwellian handwaving at it’s finest–essentially an attitude of superiority to his readers–based on the assumption that none of us are really paying attention.

    I agree totally with Gladwell’s main point, but it’d be nice if he stopped interrupting his reasoning with tangential bullshit.

  15. Actually, I thought Gladwell was pretty flawed. Great read, but wrong conclusions. I didn’t really like Anil’s post either. So there.

    Rebuttals I liked better were this one in the Atlantic. And this one from Oliver Willis.

    My top objections to Gladwell’s piece:

    1) Social networks don’t make strong links weaker. They can make weak link stronger though, and help form new links. I suspect they can also help make strong links.

    2) They’re new tools. As activists, we can use them or not. And we’ll definitely use them. Every activist organization I know of is getting value out of them.

    3) Social networks don’t eliminate other ways of working. Direct action, street protests, local groups, etc are still useful ways of organizing. Social networking can make this kind of thing easier and more impactful.

    I don’t thing “social networking changes everything!” and I don’t think it changes nothing either. By and large, it’s what we do with it.

  16. The Maker “movement” has always struck me as being just another drop in the ages-old DIY ocean. Of course, the hipsters involved just never seem to be happy with the idea that they may not actually be originals. So, they re-brand “DIY” to “Maker” and act like they invented this great thing called the wheel. And they charge fees so you, too, can learn to Makeâ„¢

    It’s not a revolution. It’s a fashion statement.

  17. It is rather interesting to think that DIY ethic, which has been around for a long time regardless of how the hip from the wealthy west have branded themselves, is considered revolutionary these days. Millions of quiet, underprivileged lives have been lived hacking cars, making due with what resources are available, and being creative to get the job done, but when a load of hipsters does it, it earns cred as radical? Whoa.

    I liked Gladwell’s imperfect piece a great deal, and think his point that social networks and internet activism ask little to nothing of participants is critical. I don’t see many Makers (and note I didn’t say any), as awesome as their stuff is, really delving deeply into the places where there’s socio-economic injustice or political instability. Being part of a political and social revolution by definition means making yourself uncomfortable for the sake of a big change. That discomfort shows commitment, will, and courage. There’s just very little actual discomfort to be found in internet activism, so what real political will does it show?

  18. I think Cory completely misread Gladwell.

    From Gladwell NYER

    Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.

    This seems self-evident after noting Cory’s reactive defense of internet activism as a whole. Is the maker movement a strong-tie movement or a weak-tie one? Would this movement exist without the internet? No. Then the “maker’s movement” is a weak-tie movement.

    Gladwell goes to great pains to elucidate the difference between strong-tie and weak-tie activism. I don’t see how this is “decrying” Internet activism. Maybe the interconnected world isn’t living up to someone’s expectations, but Gladwell defines rather then decries. Yes activism works online, but it doesn’t necessarily work in the way some in the past have claimed it would work.

    It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.

    I think Gladwell is on to something here. The larger the crowd the easier it is for a one weak voice to get drowned out amongst all the rest of the noise. That one voice by itself won’t necessarily sway the crowd. When it comes to politics is doesn’t matter what content people troll while online. What matters is that they pull their friends into their off-line activities.

    Dash in his quote above incorrectly suggests that the Tea Party is purely resultant of online activism. I think it is obvious that the Tea party is more then this: it is truly a strong-tie movement. How else would it have the staying power and the force that it is having now? The Tea party goes well beyond simply publishing content online.

    Dash also speaks clearly to the bald political aspirations of the maker movement. Yet if this activism is to gather any true staying power then a concrete organization must be culled from the current state of weak-tie connections. Reliance on pure internet based content and the occasional fair keeps the maker movement neatly restricted strictly to its niche.

    I think anyone who might suggests that I should already know about the maker’s happenings simply becuase I use the internet or BB is delusional.

    Cory you would do well to heed the lessons in Gladwell’s article. Denial isn’t going to help you push your agenda forward.

  19. Criticising online social activism because it isn’t tangible action, is like criticising the phone book because it isn’t a tangible, delivered pizza.

    1. You’re metaphor is inconsistent with the framework laid out by Gladwell’s article. Gladwell doesn’t deny that the internet can effect change, what he doubts is that it can single handedly cause sweeping revolution. Gladwell’s important point is that when it comes to “revolutions” what happens off-line is more important that what happens online.

      1. I can’t think of anyone who claimed it would be single-handed. It’s a strawman. You need A to get to B, and services like Twitter replace A, not B. And they replace A extremely, extremely well. That’s what I don’t think Gladwell gets.

        Just like in the act of ordering a pizza, it’s the eating of it that’s important, but you’d be far wide of the mark to criticise vastly improved phone book tools on that basis.

  20. I really enjoyed reading these, and I have several contentions with Gladwell’s piece that I thought wasn’t well addressed by Dash. I just came across an article written by Jonah Lehrer over at Wired that rebuts Gladwell’s weak-ties thesis (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/weak-ties-twitter-and-revolutions/). It addresses my first thought when I read Gladwell’s piece, which was how weak-ties can influence strong-ties. I.e., why does a “Twitter revolution” exclude the possibility of influencing strong-tie relationships? Jonah brings this into the spotlight by citing some past research on the matter.

  21. I am still not following your logic Laroquod. I think you are incorrect to claim that Gladwell somehow misses the hyper-connective nature of the internet. In your example you are seeing the internet merely as a means to order a product. This is inconstant with Gladwell’s article, as it specifically addresses the relations among groups of people through a hyper-textual medium, or “weak-tie” as stated in the article.

    The act of ordering a pizza online is itself only an expression of a new tool, not a revolution. Gladwell explains this, and in fact it is part of his premise; that the internet is just a more efficient execution of the staus quo. Your attempted counter here, far from exposing a strawman actually reinforces Gladwells contention. The act of ordering a pizza is part of the existing social order, which is, like it or not, independent from internet itself; as per the example you provide, you can use either a phone book or the internet, either way the act and outcome are the same. The internet only makes this established social status quo more effective.

    The touchstone example that Gladwell cites as leveraging weak-tie social networks is eerily similar to a much vaulted post in BoingBoing wherein a Salon Magazine writer tracked down and helped catch a theif who stole some things from her car.

    I can’t read your mind so I don’t know what exactly you found wrong with the article. But as I’ve said before, your counter is contained within the original premise of the article. Gladwell freely admits to increased efficiency, what he doesn’t believe is that this increase in efficiency, by itself, will readily lead to widespread social change or upheaval. Rather, Gladwell states that social change without close face-to-face friendships amongst the revolutionary party is simply not possible.

    1. Dude… I didn’t mean you to take the pizza literally. The fact that it’s a product has nothing to do with it. If it weren’t a product, how would it change the equation, in any way? You use Twitter to find out where other people are. The existence of this service does nothing whatsoever to restrain two people from getting together and taking physical action of some kind. The two just don’t connect, so Gladwell’s thesis, which is in its essence that since stuff like Twitter doesn’t solve the doing the physical action, then there isn’t an activism revolution at hand, online. But what he doesn’t get is, the consequences of how well it solves the one thing it *is* intendend to solve, are so far reaching, that it’s a revolution for activism entirely independently from it’s ability to schedule any particular protest. Even if no one ever uses it to successfully schedule a protests, but to find out each other’s blog and slowly collect mailing lists of so-called ‘shallow’ connections, it will be a revolution for activism. Just not right away. Weak ties precede strong ties; they’re built on top of each other. Improve the technology enough in the kernel of this operating system — add several orders of magnitude to the frequency with which you become aware of others’ likeminded existence in the first place — and there’s way more of a chance that something will spark, leading to a deeper connection. And deeper connections have more pull. There is an undeniable gravitation at work in all this. We haven’t even begun to see what’s going to emerge when these social masses start to go critical in certain ways. To pronounce now that Twitter, etc., are not an enormous boon for social activism, is increibly premature and so mathematically unlikely that it’s actually funny.

      So yeah… just like if you time-napped someone from the past and let them watch while you ordered a pizza over the web. And they just look around, waiting for the pizza to zap in out of thin air, and when it doesn’t, they say: ‘So where is the pizza? That thingajigger doesn’t work! Yer crazy man. Nobody gets no pizza off a TV. Take me back to 1970.’

  22. There was nothing wrong with Gladwell’s article. Dash didn’t even bother to counter Gladwell’s points with anything more than hand-waving. Perhaps before you rushed out to stroke Dash’s already inflated ego, you could have sent a note explaining to Dash what constitutes a strawman argument, because Dash fucks that up so thoroughly it’s hard to take the rest of his already annoying self-aggrandizement seriously. Not that anyone should. The “Makers Faire” is no more a civil rights movement (never mind comparing it to the actual “Civil Rights Movement” of the 60’s) than farmer’s markets.

  23. Gladwell made some interesting observations about what we can and can’t expect from internet social media and Dash rather confirmed them with his recollections of the real commitment his great grandfather showed to the cause of Indian independence.

    Cory calls Gladwell “silly” and says Dash has “hit one so far out of the park it attains orbit”, which is yet another hyperbolic reason why I’ve taken to avoiding his contributions to BoingBoing — unless, as here, they start by slagging off someone who may not be perfect but who I know to have a record of uncovering unsuspected congruences, surprising correlations and remarkable biographies, among other things.

    Rather than cutesy art school projects, over-long video diatribes, cockamamie blather about the software development policies of capitalist corporations, advertisements for his own books, and steampunk, steampunk, steampunk, way up the yazoo.

    I like his exposés of the frightful assaults on individual liberty so often occurring in the UK and the rest of the Anglosphere, but for the rest I’ll stick with Mark, David, Xeni et al. Am I playing the man rather than the ball? Or simply fed up?

  24. Cory whiffs this one so badly I could feel the breeze way over here.

    Dash does nothing to refute Gladwell’s main point (which is remarkably cogent and nowhere near silly).

    Methinks vested interests protest overmuch.

  25. Maybe we don’t understand what it takes to really make a difference with big serious issues like civil rights or global warming. I’ve seen successful actions against big companies first-hand and it takes a ton of time, effort, and persistence – like picketing every day for 6 months. I fear that the Internet culture is lulling is into thinking it could be as easy as typing on your computer or writing a check. The powers that be may well be laughing at us. They’re definitely winning.

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