Samuel Adams started the Revolution because he didn’t have Twitter

Summary: We don’t eat kippers for breakfast because Samuel Adams didn’t have the temptation of running the Revolution by Twitter instead by snail mail. Social media are a powerful tool for organizations, but no substitute for them. The delusion of a self-organizing crowd appeals to people seeking easy low-commitment ways to reform America. Perhaps repeated failures will eventually teach us this. This is the 3rd in this series.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“Twitter Revolution” by Tim Dunn at DeviantArt.


  1. High-tech failed revolutions.
  2. Why social media isn’t a magic bullet for politics.
  3. Organizations: a key to successful reform.
  4. Other posts in this series.
  5. For More Information.

(1)  High-tech failed revolutions

Contrast this with the color revolutions which began with such promise — easy, fast revolts using Twitter! — but most of which ended with such disappointment. Techies hoped that social media facilitated self-organizing networks that would reach critical mass, somehow producing complex political change.

Consider the Orange Revolution in Ukraine: protestors overthrew an elected government (the vote certified as fair by domestic and foreign observers) with the aid of western intelligence agencies (working through various NGOs), resulting in a rise of neo-Nazi groups and civil war. It’s a story as common as dirt.

Social media can effectively mobilize public support, but that’s a snare. Not only do movements created by social media lack a leadership structure, their flat communications networks tend to suppress the rise of leaders. Social media networks center on nodes: people with connections to many other people. The skills needed to become a node are not those of leaders. Most of all a node is an individual, a leader is one who assumes some personal responsibility for the movement (that is the sine qua non of leadership).

Except when used by an organization, social media excels at creating mobs (especially flash mobs). As we saw with Occupy, mobs are easily misled into folly. As we saw with the Tea Party, they’re easily led to aims quite different to those they intended (born in opposition to bank bailouts, they helped elect the most bank-friendly Congress since 1932 (as Chairman Bachus explained).

What have we to show for the movements of the past decade? How many of the “Twitter revolutions” on the the following map accomplished much?

Map of Twitter revolutions

(2)  Why social media doesn’t provide a magic bullet for reform

Sam Adams made personal connections to small numbers of like minded people, building a web of committed revolutionaries. Today’s social media allows our Sam Adams to contact millions (Katy Perry has almost 70 million followers on Twitter). He could generate a tidal wave of chatter and some fantastic flash mobs — but be forgotten next year.

For an excellent analysis of this see “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, 4 October 2010 — Red emphasis added. Excerpt:

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.

When 10,000 protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

… In a new book called The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media to Drive Social Change the business consultant Andy Smith and the Stanford Business School professor Jennifer Aaker tell the story of Sameer Bhatia, a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur who came down with acute myelogenous leukemia. It’s a perfect illustration of social media’s strengths. Bhatia needed a bone-marrow transplant, but he could not find a match among his relatives and friends. … Bhatia’s business partner sent out an e-mail explaining Bhatia’s plight to more than 400 of their acquaintances, who forwarded the e-mail to their personal contacts; Facebook pages and YouTube videos were devoted to the Help Sameer campaign. Eventually, nearly 25,000 new people were registered in the bone-marrow database, and Bhatia found a match.

But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them. That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf. You can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor registry, because doing so is pretty easy. … it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation — by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.

SirensHis analysis and conclusions should be blindingly obvious to everyone. But they were widely criticized, mostly in a remarkably woolly-headed way. For example, read Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter) at The Atlantic inadvertently explaining why we lose to the 1%:

“Small Change” dismisses leaderless, self-organizing systems as viable agents of change. A flock of birds flying around an object in flight has no leader yet this beautiful, seemingly choreographed movement is the very embodiment of change.

He compares revolutions, among the most difficult, risky, and complex of social activities, to the instinctual behavior of birds. This is daft, no matter how many millions Stone has in the bank. But his message is what we want to hear. He and others like him are Sirens for the 1%, luring us onto the rocks with sweet tunes.

The Twitter revolution

(3) Organizations: a key to successful reform

Successful protests usually result from organizations that choose the time and place, plus careful preparation. Spontaneity is usually an illusion. Reaching for broad support without an organization risks burning resources and leaving nothing behind. A skilled and effective organization usually develops from years or decades of effort. Look to our own history of successful reform movements. Ideas and people won without high-tech machinery.

Samuel Adams and his fellow activists in 1764 Boston reacted to local problems by taking collective action: organizing the first of the Committees of Correspondence. Later these reached out to like-minded people in other colonies. Eleven colonies had Committees by February 1774. These groups steadily gained experience acting on a local and then national scale. They formed the nucleus of shadow governments, which later formed the basis of revolutionary governments.

Benjamin Franklin helped organize America’s first Abolitionist Society at Pennsylvania in 1785. These spread across the nation. Victory came in 1865.  (In 1787 William Wilberforce began his crusade in Parliament against slavery in the UK, he drew upon support from groups such as the Quakers’ antislavery societies and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, plus informal groups like the Testonites. Full victory came in 1833.)

The first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls NY in 1848. The first National Women’s Rights Conventions was held in Worcester, MA in October 1850. The 19th Amendment became law in August 1920 when ratified by the 36th State.

Flash forward to our civil rights movement. Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience in 1955 was a staged event, brilliantly developed into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Greensboro sit-in in 1960 was unorganized, but used a technique developed during the previous 20 years by civil rights groups. The movement was an intelligently run loose alliance of groups such as the NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference — plus others formed from the energy released by these early protests, such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

This is the path to follow for those interested in reforming America. Left or Right does not matter; find others interested in working to make a better nation. Plan and organize. Link with others sharing your goals, in broad terms. Expect a long difficult struggle.

(4) Other posts in this series

  1. What if Samuel Adams tried to start the Revolution by blogging?
  2. What if the Founders’ generation read the news as we do?
  3. Samuel Adams started the Revolution because he didn’t have Twitter.

(5)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the decay of the Second Republic (built on the Constitution), and those about ways to reform America — paths to a new politics. Especially these:

  1. Why the 1% is winning, and we are not — They’re organizing and planning.
  2. How can we arouse a passion to reform America in the hearts of our neighbors?
  3. How to recruit people to the cause of reforming America.
  4. Is grassroots organizing a snare or magic bullet for the reform of America?,
  5. Why don’t political protests work? What are the larger lessons from our repeated failures?
  6. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century.
  7. How do protests like the TP and OWS differ from effective political action?
  8. The Million Vet March, a typical peasants’ protest. Does it portend more serious protests in our future?
  9. The protests in NYC repeat those in Ferguson, and probably will end the same – as wins for the 1%.

Always remember: revitalization is an inherent capacity of the human soul, the Founders’ machinery remains idle but still powerful, and we are powerful when we act together.

In our future lies a better America.

7 thoughts on “Samuel Adams started the Revolution because he didn’t have Twitter”

  1. I agree with everything you say here. May I add some points for further reflection?

    1) Just like with every activity, people must learn the ropes of organizing. Trade unions were a way to do it — for real, putting oneself in the line of fire (both with respect to management, and with respect to workers who expected results). I cannot really assess what is the part of long-term disaffection and the one of relentless repression that led to the demise of unionism, but (like other social venues for grassroots organizing), its disappearance has left a training void.

    2) Established organizations abhor structures sprouting outside their realm, whether they pursue similar or opposite objectives. Corporations do not just dislike unions — they also do everything to prevent employees setting up organizations that bypass official command lines; the widespread fashion of project-oriented teams, where people keep being tossed from one group or to another makes it hard to establish such relations — even when the resulting unofficial structures would ultimately be beneficial to the firm. Parties try to destroy, hijack or phagocytize every strong movement that shows some ascendency, as you mention with the Tea Party.

    3) Ever since the Wikileaks and then Snowden revelations, it was clear to me that the entire surveillance apparatus set up by the US government is not designed to detect threats, but to uncover communities, identify their structure, and track their members. All that “meta-data” about whom you call and when, to whom you send e-mail, where you go according to the GPS of your mobile phone, what kind of web sites you visit regularly, etc? Structural information that is great to uncover organizations, not to determine what they are up to. I strongly suggest you read “What Everyone Should Know About State Repression” by Victor Serge — it is enlightening to see what the Okhrana was doing over a hundred years ago with the technology available then, what it was focusing on (spoiler: figuring out the structure of unofficial and clandestine organizations), and how much it prefigures the current surveillance state.

    The NSA, CIA, FBI, etc, know that organizations can be efficient and hence potentially dangerous, so this is why so many resources are devoted spying on muslim associations or local citizens trying to figure out how to deal with some environmental (or whatever) issue. The proverbial, super-dangerous, supposedly prime target “lone wolf” violent terrorist? Not a problem — damages they cause are always temporary, and lone wolves cannot be pinpointed through what are organizational characteristics almost by definition.

    1. guest,

      You raise some important points, clearly stated. I agree fully.

      Few people understood he centrality of unions to the prosperity of the middle class and the political balance that kept the 1% under control. Few didn’t realize how much we owed them until they were broken. Interestingly, the 1% understood, as seen in their vicious opposition to them from the early 19thC to their successful crushing of them during the past 30 years.

      That’s a great point about the use of surveillance! Although I didn’t have your insight about communities, I gave some tips for running a successful political reform movement that applied: Assume “observation by every technical means and to be extensively infiltrated. There will be no secrets. Embrace that and operate with extreme transparency. Let them spy and listen.”

  2. Now you are talking, FM!

    I have always felt that social media was a false hope for people attempting to organize change. As you note, flash mobs make a good tool for organizations seeking change, but they are NOT, by themselves, going to do anything.

    A few other comments:
    1) The social media vs. small determined organization mimics the great debate among the Russian revolutionaries, the Mensheviks vs. Bolsheviks. Once again, the Bolsheviks are winning.
    2) To quote Boyd: People, Ideas, Equipment; in that order! The internet falls into the category of equipment. It is useless without the right people and the right ideas.
    3) On your comments on labor unions. The 1% were able to suppress the unions as long as there was a sufficient supply of cheap desperate (ie. immigrant) workers. Labor unions did not really start to take off until after the US government set immigration quotas and labor became a less common commodity, which gave the unions the lever they needed to create the middle class.
    4) Never forget that the 1% is united in their efforts to lower their own costs but are not united in any other way. This is why they would be terrible rulers, to paraphrase the book Dune, “It is far easier to destroy [a political organization] than it is to build one.” But…
    5) Another quote from Dune, “the ability to destroy something gives you the ability to control it” is patently false if you need the commodity/organization. The 1% NEED the government and, in spite of the crazy ideas of some of their members, they cannot safely destroy the government without destroying themselves. This limits their options and attempts to destroy/permanently damage the government by members of the 1% will necessarily lead to internal dissention, which can be exploited.
    6) Also the 1% do not want to take responsibility for the government, which further limits their options.

    1. Pluto,

      I agree with #1 – 3. I strongly disagree with your beliefs about the 1%. After all. They ran the nation during the Gilded Age, and have run many or most other western nations for centuries.

      I see no evidence that they are more divided than other successful ruling classes. Of course they are a unitary entity. But they are a small group, with a strong consensus on the their fitness to rule.

      That they want to destroy the government, or implement libertarian fantasies, is IMO absurd — taking seriously the drivel they feed their “useful idiots”. They know the government is a powerful tool to channel the nation’s income, to maintain their rule, and implement their policies.

  3. FM-

    I recently read “How Colleges Are Becoming Greenhouses for Sustainability Indoctrination” which supports your assertion that organization is impotent to long term changes in culture. My stomach has been churning a bit the last few days- some of this discomfort is likely flu related. A recent discussion with a house guest on a soon to close large local General Mills facility has been bothering me a bit about what might be missing from the E-3 models (PDF here).

    It been a few years since I had any responsibility for defining a manufacturing strategy but one of the rather critical components of our analysis was utility costs. As the General Mills facility is located in PG&E’s service territory I wondered if the actual year over year kWh price increases for CA’s commercial and industrial sectors might have something to do with the decision to close the facility and move the operations to another state.

    The blogosphere has been full of posts indicating minimal electrical energy cost inflation (ex: “U.S. Electricity Rates Are Jumping – Or Are They?“): “The West Coast saw nearly stagnant prices for residential power…”. My in-laws experienced a rather significant bill shock- year over year increase in their monthly bill from PG&E. Something seemed askew with Average data reporting (without an SD that is). For the same kWh usage per day (41.1 kWh) my in-laws saw their bill go up 24.07%. Their Tier 1 and 2 kWh prices went up and their baseline level went down year over year. This led to a bill of $157 compared to a cost of $126 a year ago for the same kWh per month usage. Knowing this I wondered if General Mills had experienced stagnant prices for power or not. “Table 5.6.A. Average Retail Price of Electricity to Ultimate Customers by End-Use Sector, by State, December 2014 and 2013 (Cents per Kilowatthour) (1)

    EIA’s report confirmed that yes some providers on the west coast saw stagnant (and ever lower) prices for residential power. The data table indicates that CA’s average costs for a kWh in the residential sector went up 5.96% (Dec 2013 vs Dec 2014). As I expected the average cost for folks in the other states on the west coast had a different experience than my in-laws. The average kWh costs for folks in Washington went down 5.08%, folks in Oregon on average saw an increase of 3.73%.

    I certainly understand why my local water district is thinking of raising their costs for water and sewer services this year. Their electric bill must have gone up somewhere between 12 and 15% according to the information in Table 5.6A. Ouch!!! Hopefully they knew the increase was coming. The General Mills facility must of seen comparable year over year electrical energy price increases as well…..

    Sorry for the length of this comment- but your recent posts have likely been helping me deal with the twinge in my gut that says something doesn’t seem to add up………

  4. Eloquently said as usual FM!

    Indeed tweet and other social media don’t work as an agent of permanent change.They offer no vision of the future beyond the immediate change at hand.

    Committees of Correspondence may just be the ticket forward by working on a revised and updated Constitution placing new limits on government based on what we know now.Having something in place as a clear vision to work for instead of the temporary “revolt\mob\snivel\vote now tweet”

    BTW,thank you for the comment like

  5. I agree with most of what’s been said. Several comments: 1) The nature of Twitter in particular causes problems. It is hard to express profound thoughts in 140 characters. 2) There is no substitute for face-to-face contact. Unions also were composed of people who depended on each other at work (for their lives in some cases). 3) Please, let’s not return to snail mail!

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