Memo to Malcolm Gladwell: Nice Hair, But You Are Wrong

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell’s erudite skewering of various cultural phenomena, something he has become famous (or possibly infamous) for, tends to produce a strong reaction in those who are close to the topics he takes on, and his recent analysis of Twitter and its potential uses as a tool for social activism is no exception. In the several weeks since he wrote the original piece, over half a dozen essays and blog posts from a variety of sources have come out arguing that he is wrong, and today, The Atlantic magazine joined the fray with a guest essay by none other than Twitter co-founder Biz Stone that took issue with his conclusions. (The title of this post comes from a message that Stone posted to Twitter about his essay.)

Gladwell’s article was entitled “Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” and started with an evocative image: a group of black college students holding a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. in 1960, to protest racism: an event that triggered subsequent rallies and demonstrations throughout the southern U.S. All this, Gladwell says, “happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.” The author then goes on to puncture the conventional wisdom that Twitter had anything much to do with revolutions in Moldova or Iran, and says that “fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

The New Yorker writer’s point is clear: real activism involves sit-ins and getting shot at, not sitting at a keyboard posting things on Twitter or text messaging. It’s hard to disagree with this; no one would argue that posting a comment to Twitter while sipping a latte at Starbucks (s sbux) is activism, simply because you happen to use the #iran hashtag. But is Gladwell making a fair comparison? I don’t think so. As other critics such as Anil Dash have also argued, setting up a contrast between Twitter and anti-racism demonstrations in the 1960s is effectively a straw-man argument, which allows the author to slam the social network for not doing things that no one has ever really claimed it was trying to do.

[inline-pro-content] One of Gladwell’s central arguments is that Twitter and other social media tools emphasize — and are powered by — what sociologists call “weak ties” between individuals (a term coined by Mark Granovetter): that is, the kind of ties that you have to your co-workers, or friends from high school, or people who belong to the same clubs as you. Gladwell says that real activism only occurs as a result of strong ties, the kind that people have to their churches, their families, and to strong leaders, and that real revolutions require a hierarchy that is antithetical to social media like Twitter. In his Atlantic essay, Biz Stone says: “Gladwell is wrong. Big change can come in small packages too” (Stone and co-founder Ev Williams made similar points in a recent Q & A discussion).

By that, the Twitter founder means that even weak ties can help pull people together around causes in ways that matter. He uses several examples, including the case of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident who is in prison for writing about human rights, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. Has Twitter led to his release? No. But as Stone argues, it has given Chinese citizens a way of talking about him, something that they would otherwise not have done — as described in a recent blog post by Hu Yong, a professor of Internet studies at Peking University. Yong said Twitter was “the only place where people can talk freely” about Liu and his ideas, and that it has become “a powerful tool for Chinese citizens.” Burmese democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, imprisoned for more than 15 years, has said when she is released one of the first things she wants to do is get a Twitter account so she can communicate with her supporters.

In her response to Gladwell’s piece, author Maria Popova describes several cases in which Facebook helped spark “real” social activism, including public protests in Colombia in 2008 that saw close to 5 million people participate in protests against the country’s armed forces, and a campaign in Bulgaria in 2009 that resulted in the largest public protests since the fall of communism, and led to the resignation of several Parliament members. As others have noted in their criticisms, Gladwell seems to see activism as an either-or proposition: Either you use social media, in which case it’s ineffective and useless, or you gather in the streets and do real activism. But wouldn’t some of those demonstrators in 1960 have loved to have better ways of getting their message out to as many people as possible?

While I was reading Gladwell’s piece, in my head I replaced any mention of Twitter or Facebook with the words “the telephone,” and then it became a diatribe about how people talking on the telephone has never amounted to anything in terms of social activism. That is probably just as true as his criticisms of Twitter. But would any modern social effort or campaign or demonstration be effective without someone making phone calls? Twitter and Facebook are just tools, and they can be used for social good in the same way any other tool can. And those “weak ties” can eventually grow into strong ones.

As Stone notes at the end of his essay: “Rudimentary communication among individuals in real time allows many to move together as one — suddenly uniting everyone in a common goal.” And that is a positive thing for social change, not a negative one.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users PopTech and David Reece