Malcolm Gladwell: Social Media Still Not a Big Deal

Author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell caused some controversy last year when he said social-media tools like Twitter aren’t worth much as a tool for social activism (or at least not “real” social activism). After the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — both of which involved extensive use of Twitter and Facebook by demonstrators — many wondered whether Gladwell would alter this stance based on some powerful evidence to the contrary. The author made it clear in a recent interview with CNN (s twx), however, that he still doesn’t think such tools amount to much.

In the interview (there’s a full transcript here), Gladwell says Twitter and Facebook may have been used by demonstrators to communicate during the recent uprisings in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, but it isn’t clear they were crucial in any way to the revolutions there. Gladwell goes on to argue that other similar events have taken place in the past — including the demonstrations in East Germany that eventually led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall — and they didn’t require any such tools:

I mean, in cases where there are no tools of communication, people still get together. So I don’t see that as being… in looking at history, I don’t see the absence of efficient tools of communication as being a limiting factor on the ability of people to socially organize.

This is the same point Gladwell made in a short note about Egypt he posted at the New Yorker site in February, in which he wrote, “people protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.” As more than one observer has pointed out, this isn’t much of an argument. There were political uprisings before guns and tanks came along too, but no one would deny that guns and tanks changed the nature of social revolutions considerably. In a message posted on Twitter, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci called arguments about how revolutions occurred before X or Y was invented “intellectually lazy.”

In the CNN interview, Gladwell also argues that social media and other such tools can just as easily be used dictators and governments to crack down on revolutions:

[Y]ou could also make the opposite argument that some of these new technologies offer dictators a … give them the potential to crackdown in ways they couldn’t crackdown before. So, my point is that for everything that looks like it’s a step forward, there’s another thing which says, well, actually, you know, there was a cost involved.

This might as well be called the Morozov principle, since it’s a cornerstone of political writer Evgeny Morozov’s argument. In Morozov’s book Net Delusion and in his columns at Foreign Policy magazine and elsewhere, he argues that the Internet is as much of a danger to social movements as it is a benefit, because (for example) government forces can monitor Facebook to see what demonstrators are up to, and track their movements using Twitter and other social tools. (Morozov is also on record as being skeptical of how much these tools have influenced the revolutions in the Arab world.)

But even this argument acknowledges that social-media tools have changed the nature of social activism in significant ways. They may not be 100-percent beneficial, as Morozov alleges some “cyber-utopians” believe, but they clearly have altered the landscape — and in many cases this appears to have tipped incipient revolutions in places such as Tunisia and Egypt over into real-world uprisings, something that you might expect would interest Gladwell, the author of the much-hyped book The Tipping Point.

For whatever reason, however, the New Yorker author seems determined to downplay the effect social media has in such situations, despite the growing evidence to the contrary. Gladwell’s full interview with CNN is embedded below.