The Revolution Will Not Be Twitterized

Arguably the inventor of rap music—and undeniably a unique voice of our time—Gil Scott-Heron is today most famous for an April 1971 track called “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” 

“…the revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruption…will not give you sex appeal, nor make you look five pounds lighter…will not go better with Coke…”. 

The message—as I hear it—making change is not a casual, part-time activity. Done seriously, it can be hazardous to your being.

Here’s a short video of Scott-Heron:

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Uploaded by mallox. – Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more.

Decades later, Malcolm Gladwell nods to Scott-Heron to say something similar about the television of our age—New Social Media (New Yorker, October 4, 2010: "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.")

In his inimitable style, Gladwell first digs deep into the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the US—February 1960, to be precise—to show how a 4-person sitdown strike morphed into sitdown strikes across the south involving 70,000 students. All done, as he notes, without Twitter.

Then—as usual—Gladwell brings in the counterpoint. In this case, new social media. With an undertone of annoyance, Gladwell quotes State Department officials, old media reporters, and new media darling Clay Shirky. They all gush about the power of Twitter and Facebook to affect global political events, and to mobilize masses of people behind crucial movements.

Bahh, says Gladwell. Don’t confuse getting people to contribute thirty-five cents from the comfort of their armchair with a willingness to go get your head broken in support of a cause. And, suggests Gladwell, it is the latter—not the former—that turns out to be at the heart of social change.

Change requires risk. Serious change is done in numbers; but in small numbers, with real ‘friends’ beside you. The ‘friends’ you have on Facebook don’t deliver that kind of support.

Personal and Impersonal Trust

The debate Gladwell is raising is nominally about social media. It does raise a related trust issue, however. To what extent does our extended connectivity and interdependence increase trust?

Let me go back to the Trust Equation to suggest an answer. The Trust Equation (actually an equation for trustworthiness) is

(C + R + I)



C = credibility

R = reliability

I = intimacy

S = self-orientation

 When people talk about new technologies allowing for the creation of greater trust, they are often talking about the first two elements of credibility and reliability—especially the latter.

·    We ‘trust’ that the sun will rise in the east;

·    We ‘trust’ Amazon’s suggestions for us because they are hugely data-based;

·    We ‘trust’ eBay’s ratings of sellers because they are aggregated and mediated;

At the same time, that kind of trust doesn’t mean I’d introduce my daughter to anyone at Amazon or eBay, or even lend anyone there ten dollars. Because that’s not the kind of trust you get from knowing people. 

A site like is a more interesting case, because it uses large impersonal aggregation to go after the kinds of interpersonal trust that are missing in a low-dollar commercial purchase. Scale alone is a huge attraction; but the impersonality of the medium, applied to a relationship game, means the dating sites have had to evolve various ways of mimicking the very personal process we have of getting to ‘really’ know other people. Winking, poking, are a few; they mimic the range of halting gestures people make toward each other in early stages; profiles and the ‘just lunch’ concept are others.

Gladwell’s specific point about revolutionary politics is an instance of a more general point about trust: Trust Is Personal. I’m talking about the Intimacy and the Self-Orientation kinds of trust mainly. I mean the kind of trust we need if we’re to do serious interactions, one on one, or movement-on-establishment.

If I don’t ‘trust’ my Toyota, I may go find a Ford. If I don’t ‘trust’ my ‘friend’ on Facebook, I may complain about him to my other ‘friends.’

But if I’m a civil rights activist in the 1960s, or an Iranian dissident today—I’m not going to risk my behind if the only one who’s got my back is a Twitter friend. 

Said Scott-Heron, “You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out…the revolution will not be on instant replay…there will be no highlights on the 11:00 news…the revolution will not be…” twitterized.

The Real Stuff is still pretty Personal.

13 replies
  1. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:


    So if I can distill today’s blog into a "NY heartbeat"…"talk is cheap". Needless to say, your arguement is much more effective, eloquent and persuasive than my "street logic".
    Today’s language is loose & has become so diluted. "Friend" used to mean someone we would trust to watch our backs and could trust to keep our most personal secrets. A "friend" today is usually a social network connection because we attended the same grade school.  Would I want to trust a social network friend without a level of ongoing personal interaction…in the words of John McEnroe, "you can’t be serious". 
  2. Jake Breeden
    Jake Breeden says:

    Great post, Charlie. I also really enjoyed — and agreed with — Gladwell’s article.

    I find a business corollary to Gladwell’s post: Social Media is good for marketing, but bad for sales. (Especially bad for trust-based selling.)

    I make the point in a blog post. What do you think?


  3. Ian brodie
    Ian brodie says:

    I’d argue that facebook and twitter do increase intimacy – up to a point. They get you chatting like at a party or the bar with often large numbers of strangers. You learn their sense of humour, sometimes find out details they wouldn’t share in a face to face meeting.

    So you definitely get more intimate. Twitter’s much more about intimacy than credibility or reliability in my view.

    But you don’t get really close. Or perhaps I shoudld say you rarely get really close. I’m sure some people somewhere are sharing intimate secrets via DMs.

    But for most of us it’s a good way of getting to "medium" intimacy.


    PS – best description of different types of trust I ever heard was from an oil company executive I interviewed when I was starting up some strategy work with them. They’d been through one of those "building trust" awaydays where they do the famous "trust fall" and he wasn’t very impressed.

    "Sure," he said, "I trust him not to drop me and let me break my neck."

    "But I sure as hell don’t trust him not to f*ck me over in a performance review."

  4. John Gies
    John Gies says:

    I haven’t listened to Scott-Heron in years. Thanks for that memory.

    I agree with Ian to a degree. Social Media Twitter, Facebook, etc. can lead to a level of trust. However it takes more than tweeting and retweeting. It recquires that we extend ourselves and perhaps ask for a personal conversation and or phone call. A new level of intimacy leading to a new level of trust develops.

    I know a couple of Social Media Consultants who plan for extended lay overs when they travel so that they can reach out to their extended network for a face to face. They claim a suprising success rate.

    From personal experience I have had mixed success reaching out and engaging people that are in my Network. Just like in the "real" world, I believ it takes engagement, sharing something of value, exteneding on a personal level and then risking the conversation.

    The revolution may not be Twitterized, but you can be sure to read about it on your phone.

    Take Good Care,


  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    John Gies’ comment resonates with me. I’ve always been curious what folks really mean by "connecting," "friendship," "intimacy" and the like when it comes to social networking.

    For me, "intimacy" is a heart-felt quality – not an ego-based or intellectual-type quality.  As such, my take is that true and real intimacy requires one’s true and real-self to show up. My experience is many folks share what they refer to as "intimate" stuff but it’s really other-than-heart driven. If trust is enhanced, all the better. But, what I look for is authenticity and a real-ness and personal-ness that comes from the heart – yes, even in business.


    The social media consultants Mr. Gies refers to represent, for me, a "proof is in the pudding" test of true and real intimacy. Meaning? When folks tell me about the deep, intimate relationships they’ve established online, I ask, for example, "So, honestly, if this person  came to town and invited you do get together for lunch, dinner, a cup of coffee… (all things being equal), would you agree to meet? And if you do and this person somehow does not match up with the mental image (expectations/assumptions…) you created about him or her (e.g., too tall or short; bad breath, crooked teeth, stutters – the type of "packaging" details that many folks base their judgments of others on (i.e., ego/mind based, certainly not heart-felt qualities or characteristics), would you pick up the level of "intimacy" (you had on line) without missing a beat? Will you experience the same level of "trust" (you say you experienced while online) after you meet? Will you continue the online "intimate" relationship as if nothing has changed? Most say, "Well, hmmm," or some such response. Few say "yes" outright.

    When folks speak of (intimate) relationships in which they’re engaged electronically. I’m often curious about who it is that’s showing up. There’s intimacy and then there’s intimacy.

  6. Lee Frederiksen
    Lee Frederiksen says:

    I think that one of the interesting dimentions of trust is the price you pay to earn it. If you have sacrificed something on my behalf I trust you more than if our relationship has cost you nothing. In "real life" we earn trust by going to bat for people or going out of our way to support them. In the new social media world some of the "costs" of a relationship are dramatically lowered. I think this may at least partialy explain why the trust does not feel genuine.

    I’d be interested to know if others see the "cost dimension" as important.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post and a good discussion…lwf

  7. John Gies
    John Gies says:

    I think as Peter says, Social Trust and a Social Friend are different than a friend in the so called Real world. (This might be a generational thing my nieces are very connected to their friends via social).  But this could be said of a colleague at work or at Church. There are some we become more intimate with than others.

    While to me, it seems difficult to create intimacy via a web browser, I have in fact developed more intimacy than if I had met the party at a networking event and had not had a vehicle (Linked in or Facebook) to stay connected. I have folks that I am developing relationships with where I am learning about their business, their articles and their families in some cases because of these social connections.

    One colleague is celebrating his 10th anniversary in California and he knows that I have seen that and that I wish him well in the rest of his marriage. He has also checked back to me on how my new business is going.

    I believe the basics of relationship development don’t change. You meet in a cafe (on line or off). There appears to be some common ground so you explore it. If in fact it is common ground and it remains interesting we stay  in touch (on line and off) and over time we develop a relationship. How intimate that relationship becomes is dependent upon what we share, and how far we go to share.




  8. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Lots of thoughts in response to this one:

    1. It’s  trendy these days to reference (and co-opt) Gil Scott-Heron. But why doesn’t anyone quote the Andrew Lloyd-Weber / Tim Rice / hit of the same era (1970), the "Superstar" finale of Jesus Christ Superstar? (Here’s a link to a great video clip of Carl Anderson singing Superstar.)

    "If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation.

    Isreal in 4 BC had no mass communication."


    2. Are you familiar with the Sarah Jones remix, "Your Revolution [will not happen between these thighs]"? (Here’s a link to a vide of Sarah Jones performing "Your Revolution". Note: NSFW) Jones does a brilliant job of skewering the rampant misogyny of contemporary hiphop. For her pains, Sarah Jones was censored by the FCC, the same FCC that that doesn’t censor the (male / misogynist) hiphop artists she was quoting. Just move along folks, no politics here–and clearly no need for a revolution.

    3. This spring there was a great Motherjones interview with Gil Scott-Heron, which talks about "the endless uses and misuses of his most famous axiom." Did you catch it? Very good.

    4. I find the passage that Gladwell quotes from Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy particularly telling:

    >“Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”


    The (English-language) Internet is increasingly a prop for sloppy / lazy / unskeptical researchers.

    Ethical Martini had a good post this spring that takes on the Twitter Triumphalism around the use of Twitter in Iran, likewise titled The Revolution will not be Twitterized. (I wonder if Gladwell read it . . . )

    5. In terms of grassroots political organizing, the word that’s missing from this discussion so far is "persuasion." In field work, one-to-one contact with a voter, like knocking on a voter’s door (known as door-knocking or canvassing) is the most effective form of persuasion available to a candidate. The problem? It’s not scalable: there’s only one candidate, and a lot of voters. So you also send out surrogates (family members, campaign members, volunteers), but the more degrees you get away from the candidate, the less effective the persuasion. And you also mediate with technology: you phone the voters, which is less persuasive than in-person contact. And eventually you resort to broadcast techniques, like paid media (advertisements you pay for), earned media (news coverage with the implied credibility of third-party objectivity), direct mail (known by voters as "more of that !!$#(%*# junk mail), and robo-calls (pre-recorded auto-dial calls, guaranteed to upset and alienate voters.)

    There’s a huge body of academic research showing that one-to-one voter contact is most persuasive and effective: it’s how campaigns win. But campaigns spend huge amounts of money on ineffctive and expensive broadcast techniques. And they lose.


    Broadcast techniques are easy. The candidate doesn’t have to go out in the rain. It’s scalable. All you do is write a check.

    Oh yeah, and the consultants which are tied to the advertising firms make a nice profit on the broadcast techniques, so that’s what they recommend.

    I would love love love to sit down over dinner and talk with you some day about trust issues around persuasion inside political campaigns. Fascinating stuff.

    6. Can Twitter and other forms of (broadcast) social media lead to feeling of trust and intimacy? Absolutely. But the barrier to actually mobilize people into taking action is a very high standard.

    (There was a time in social media discourse when these technologies were distinguished as "1-to-1" or "many-to-many" communication techniques, with the understanding that 1-to-1 was more powerful than many-to-many, but I hardly see the terms used any more, coinciding roughly with the rise of twitter-mania. Interesting.)

    I have been in charge of volutneer recruitment and mobilization in politics. Twitter / email / websites / newsletters (/broadcast techniques) are great for conveying detailed information about an event or activity, but the only way to get people to commit and show up for a volunteer shift is to talk to them directly on the phone. No surprise there, right?

    So more to your point, if someone on Twitter exhorts you to man the barricades, odds are you’ll stay home. (As Barbara put it so well above, talk is cheap.) But if someone you know and trust talks to you in person, looks you in the eye, touches your arm, and asks you to *come with them*, odds are much higher you’ll overthrow the Bastille together.

    Note: There’s much to be said for old school / low tech. Odds are also much lower that a government flunky is listening in (on a wiretap, or via public access to your broadcast). And a movement founded on close, trusted relationships is much less vulnerable to infiltration by spies and agents provocateurs.

    6. For you or any of your readers who are interested in a first-hand account of the civil rights movement, I highly recommend the biography of Congressman John Lewis, titled "Walking with the Wind." Much of the book is taken up with his work with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and contains a great amount of (passive resistance to) head breaking.

    Likewise, if you are interested in seeing real one-to-one persuastion, mobilation, and relationship building, I recommend reading up on the work of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in co-founding the National Farmworkers Association.

    . . .

    I worry about the rise of Slacktivism, the substitution of activities (like "clicking on this link," or "forwarding this to a friend," or "wearing this ribbon / tshirt / rubber bracelent / bumpersticker") that provide the illusion of activism and a great sense of personal righteousness without any real world contribution.  This is an important conversation to have. Thanks.

  9. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, here are some links that dig into the importance of weak social ties and specifically address some of the trust dynamics at play:

      * Mark Granovetter’s 1973 paper, titled “The Strength of Weak Ties, which argues that weak ties play a seminal role in building trust among a large group of loosely affiliated members, which is essential for rallying behind a cause.
    * University of Maryland-Baltimore sociologist Zeynep Tufecki disagrees in What Gladwell Gets Wrong: The Real Problem is Scale Mismatch, where she also points out that lots of weak ties beget some strong ties.


  10. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    I haven’t forgotten this post, Charlie. Just thought of you reading an interesting article about the potential for social media to help during natural disasters: Participation vs Precipitation.

    I wonder if the post came to the attention of any smart corporate communications departments who could take the ideas into account in their disaster recovery plans. Or mom and pop businesses for that matter.

  11. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    In the tributes that came out after Gil Scott-Heron’s death on May 27, I came across this quotation where he explained in an interview exactly what he meant by the line, “The revolution will not be televised”:

    “The catchphrase, what that was all about, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” that was about the fact that the first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move. So when we said that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” we were saying that the thing that’s gonna change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film. It will just be something that you see, and all of a sudden you realize I’m on the wrong page, or I’m on the right page but I’m on the wrong note, and I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to understand what’s happening in this country.”
    — Gil Scott-Heron, The 90’s, episode 306: Race And Racism – Red, White, And Black [19:38 on the video]

    I found it in this excellent post which I also recommend, In His Own Words: Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011), which compiles video clips and text interview excerpts of Scott-Heron.

    It’s the first time I’ve seen an explanation by Scott-Heron of what he meant (as opposed to all of the interpretations offered by others) and I thought you might enjoy it.


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