Gladwell Still Missing the Point About Social Media and Activism

After weeks of discussion in the blogosphere over whether what happened in Tunisia was a “Twitter revolution,” and whether social media also helped trigger the current anti-government uprising in Egypt, author Malcolm Gladwell — who wrote a widely-read New Yorker article about how inconsequential social media is when it comes to “real” social activism — has finally weighed in with his thoughts. But he continues to miss the real point about the use of Twitter and Facebook, which is somewhat surprising for the author of the best-seller The Tipping Point.

Although the topic of social media’s role in events in Tunisia and Egypt has been the focus of much commentary from observers such as Ethan Zuckerman and Jillian York of Global Voices Online, and also from Foreign Policy magazine columnist and author Evgeny Morozov, the response from Gladwell was all of about 200 words long. In a somewhat defensive tone, he suggested that if Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong had made his famous statement about how “power grows from the barrel of a gun” today, everyone would obsess over whether he made it on Twitter or Facebook or his Tumblr blog. Gladwell concluded that while there is a lot that can be said about the protests in Egypt:

Surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.

In other words, as far as the New Yorker writer is concerned, the use of any specific communications tools — whether that happens to be cellphones or SMS or Twitter or Facebook — may be occurring, and may even be helping revolutionaries in countries like Egypt in some poorly-defined way, but it’s just not that interesting. This seems like an odd comment coming from someone who wrote a book all about how a series of small changes in the way people think about an issue can suddenly reach a “tipping point” and gain widespread appeal, since that’s exactly what social media does so well.

Gladwell is not the only doubter

Gladwell isn’t the only one who has taken a skeptical stance when it comes to the use of social media in such situations. Foreign Policy writer Morozov is also the author of a book called “Net Delusion,” in which he argues that the views of some “cyber-utopians” are in danger of distorting political discourse to the point where some politicians think that all people require in order to overthrow governments is Internet access and some Twitter followers. This view was echoed in a recent piece in BusinessWeek entitled “The Fallacy of Facebook Diplomacy,” which argued that “the idea that America can use the Internet to influence global events is more dream than reality.”

But as sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci argues in a blog post responding to Gladwell — and as we argued in a recent post here — the point is not that social media tools like Twitter and Facebook cause revolutions in any real sense. What they are very good at doing, however, is connecting people in very simple ways, and making those connections in a very fast and widely-distributed manner. This is the power of a networked society and of cheap, real-time communication networks.

Weak ties can also connect to and become strong ties

As Tufekci notes, what happens in social networks is the creation of what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties” in a seminal piece of research in the 1970s (PDF link) — that is, the kinds of ties you have to your broader network of friends and acquaintances, as opposed to the strong ties that you have to your family or your church. But while Gladwell more or less dismissed the value of those ties in his original New Yorker piece, Tufekci argues that these weak ties can become connected to our stronger relationships, and that’s when real change — potentially large-scale global change — can occur.

New movements that can bring about global social change will still require people who interact with each other regularly, and trust and depend on each other in somewhat dense networks. Or only hope is if those networks span the globe in a tightly-knit, broad web of activity, interaction, personalization. Real change will come only if we can make friends we care about everywhere and we make bridge ties that cover the world in a web of common humanity.

That’s not to say that the question of who is using which social-media tool is inherently more interesting than the actual human acts of bravery and risks that people in Tunisia and Egypt have taken, or are taking. But those tools and that activity can bring things to a tipping point that might otherwise not have occurred, or spur others (possibly even in other countries) to do something similar. Why else would governments like Mubarak’s be so quick to shut down the Internet and cellphone networks? And that is interesting — or should be — regardless of what Malcolm Gladwell might think.

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