“Laughable,” “absurd,” “ludicrous” and “pointless” were words Twitter founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone used Monday night to describe a recent Malcolm Gladwell story in the New Yorker about the futility of social media to create real social change.

Twitter's Biz Stone and Evan Williams

“Laughable,” “absurd,” “ludicrous” and “pointless” were words Twitter founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone used Monday night to describe a recent Malcolm Gladwell story in the New Yorker about the futility of social media to create real social change. Of course, you wouldn’t expect those two to agree with Gladwell’s thesis, but they offered valid critiques while speaking at an event for the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

Stone said he could see validity in Gladwell’s point that effecting meaningful and sustained social change requires strong relationships and hierarchical structure. But he added,

The real-time exchange of information — a service like Twitter — it would be absurd to think it’s not complementary to activism. When it really comes down to it, it’s not going to be technology that’s going to be the agent of change. It’s going to be people; it’s going to be humanity.

Williams, for his part, said of the Gladwell article, “It was a very well-constructed argument but it was kind of laughable. He pointed out that you don’t ever get much of anything done by just telling people you’re going to do it; you actually have to do it.


Twitter's Biz Stone and Evan Williams


“Anyone who’s claiming that sending a tweet by itself is activism, that’s ludicrous — but no one’s claiming that, at least no one that’s credible,” said Williams, who stepped down as Twitter CEO last week to focus on product and cede the role to more of a manager and business operator, former Twitter COO Dick Costolo.

“If you can’t organize you can’t activate,” Williams said, criticizing Gladwell for at one point conflating the editability of Wikipedia with Twitter. “I thought [the article] was entertaining but kind of pointless.”

Stone (at this point basically piling on) said he gave Gladwell props for mounting an argument against Twitter. “He could have stuck to email and texting,” Stone pointed out, which probably wouldn’t have instigated nearly such a large and viral discussion of the article.

The Twitter guys said they don’t want to take as much credit as some people have offered them for playing a role in catalyzing the Iranian election protests last year. Even though Twitter may have had little to do with actual citizen organization in Iran, it helped bring global attention to the events, they said. Williams disclosed that #iranelection was Twitter’s No. 1 trending topic in all of 2009.

As another example of Twitter being applied for social good, Stone brought up usage of Twitter after the Haiti earthquake in January, which included emergency services coordination but also was a major driver of publicity for text-message donation campaigns that generated record contributions.

Other tidbits from this Twitter founders’ conversation with BusinessWeek’s Brad Stone:

  • Williams pointed out that his new product role is his fourth position at Twitter (in as many years). He said of promoting Costolo, “I thought I could be more useful doing that role, and Dick could do my role better.”
  • Biz Stone said that Twitter doesn’t have too much of a problem with censoring pornographic tweets. “It’s hard to get super porny in 140 characters,” he said, joking, “That ASCII art is going to have to be pretty sophisticated.”
  • Twitter is not prioritizing making its service available in China, where it is currently blocked: “China’s very big but there’s lots to do in the rest of the world,” said Williams.
  • Like Facebook expects to hit 1 billion users, Williams said Twitter will get to 1 billion members too. Biz Stone added “Not the same billion.” Brad Stone asked when. Williams replied “In the future.”
  • Williams said that he thinks an interesting and unexploited use of Twitter would be to create an account that “just retweets other tweets” on a topic, like the best of San Francisco or baseball. Not everyone has to produce content, he said; you can also help curate and spread good stuff.

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Image courtesy Flickr user evhead.

  1. “Not everyone has to produce content, he said; you can also help curate and spread good stuff.”

    Looks like someone told Ev about http://www.curated.by :)

  2. Is Gladwell saying that “edit-ability of Wikipedia by the public is not credible for public”? That’s a faulty premise to arrive at the conclusion and then discuss anything else about the Internet. I would kind of agree with what Twitter founders have to say about this.

    Honestly, valuable critics would always want to save their “credibility” spell by sharing such thoughts. It’s their USP.

    – Arvind

  3. Gladwell’s Argument was so disappointing exactly because his Conclusions in effect traduced The Entire Previous Body of his Work. That is a curious Outcome and has left me entirely perplexed. The Impact of Social Media, the Ability of [Wo]ManKind to collaborate and scale is plain disjunctive. To Cite the last 24 Months [The Early Stage Start Up Phase] is to look at a one Hour Film for 30 seconds and draw a definitive Conclusion. It is absurd.
    Aly-Khan Satchu

  4. Gladwell definitely got it wrong but Stone was also wrong to concede that effecting change requires strong relationships and hierachical structures. That was the case in the Gutenberg world, but social media changes all that because it aggregates the collective effect of very weak relationships and responses – it empowers Passive Consent.


  5. You know, I enjoyed the Gladwell article, and yet I totally see what the Twitter folks are saying. I thought Gladwell made an important point that there is a difference between networking and hierarchy, and some form of hierarchy is probably needed to foment real change.

    However, I think Williams is right that the value of Twitter in the Iran election wasn’t as a galvanizing force as much as an educational one. To me, it was a tremendous victory that the trending topic was #iranelection. To me, the value of Twitter in that situation was that it got people engaged in an international story that they really should (but all too often don’t) care about.

    I also think it is important to point out that much of traditional media has failed, more or less, in getting its readers engaged in many important topics. Too often, the trend has been for cotton candy or horse race coverage in the relentless battle to attract readers.

    I think the Twitter example showed that people can care about what’s important. They just need a way to get into the story and make sense of it. I think there’s a lesson in that for traditional news organizations.

  6. I find it very dissapointing that intelligent people like Twitter co-founders must react so defensively against Gladwell’s article.

    I hugely enjoyed Gladwell’s piece and I think he nailed it. I don’t understand why Sillicon Valley entepreneurs have to constantly feed their egos by issuing grand statements of how their ventures have helped make a better world, catalyze social change, etc.

    Guys, Twitter is a fantastic communication tool that millions of people enjoy using daily. There is no need for it to be the saviour of democracy and the agent of social revolution.

    Social change and human progress come from the people that stand in front of the tanks, not the guys that tweet from their bedrooms, that’s a fundamental truth and is not going to be changed by whatever number of 140 character tweets are sent out there.

  7. What Twitter is, is simple: it comes down to being a really great communications tool; everything else is up to the user(s).
    I.e., telegram, telephone, email, etc… It does and will change the way we communicate.

  8. Twitter is a social media communication tool. All other uses were evolved by the users. Which is what makes it a great service.

  9. Isn’t Twitter already hierarchical? It seems to me the purveyors of the old hierarchy hold the most immediate sway. They have the most followers anyways. Isn’t that the point?

  10. [...] Twitter co-founder Ev Williams shrugs off Malcolm Gladwell’s critique of the significance of Twitter and other social media [...]


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