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Summary:

Author Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote a critical piece in the New Yorker about the role of social media in activism, has weighed in with his thoughts on the current situation in Egypt. But he continues to miss the real point about the use of these tools.

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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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Rosauro Ochoa

  1. My ex-husband had done his masters thesis on the mobilizations and eventual legal case to stop the Acheloos River Diversion Project in Greece.

    One of the focuses of his research was how disparate groups who didn’t ‘know each other’ in the formal sense but had deeper cultural and social bonds could end up coming together to form an activist movement over time.

    If we consider the acceleration of those dynamics through the power of networks, I can only find myself completely dumbfounded by Gladwell’s insistence that his original assertions were correct or maybe he needs more than 200 words to make any decent argument about it. Either way, as I had originally written on my own blog, he’s still dead wrong. Now he’s just dead wrong, twice.

    (and bc know you want to read my blog Mathew i’ll put the link in here for you ;) http://leighhimel.blogspot.com/2010/09/malcolm-gladwell-is-dead-wrong.html

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    1. Thanks for that, Leigh — and of course you know I read your blog religiously :-)

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  2. I don’t often find myself defending Gladwell but I’m a doubter, too.

    The danger with fawning over the proclamations of the technology utopians is that normal folks will assume that all they have to do is tweet, facebook, and blog to affect social change. This is not the case.

    Assuming we can tweet our way to a more just world is to me (and apparently to Gladwell) a rationalization of our complacency. Symbolic gestures generally result in equally symbolic (read: patronizing and empty) responses.

    Media can fan the flames of political discourse but the utopians seem to believe that media can replace political discourse. As France proves again and again, real political discourse between the public and their government happens in the streets.

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    1. Excellent points!

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    2. That’s a fair point, Ian — but I haven’t come across any utopians who think we can all just tweet our way to a more just world. I’m sure there are lots who don’t really want to take action, but that’s a different thing altogether. I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks Twitter somehow magically changes things all by itself. Thanks for the comment though.

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    3. I see where you’re coming from Ian. Social media was involved, and that is exciting, BUT it is important that social media’s role doesn’t overshadow the issues that truly fueled the uprisings in the first place. I lived in Egypt for a period of time a few years ago. I am so proud of the people taking a stand on issues that have burdened them for centuries. In the scope of history this uprising would have happened eventually, but that social media played a part in assembling the masses is pretty cool.

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    4. Actually, I rather think Gladwell has been proven right – and that events in Egypt prove it. In Egypt the Internet was pulled down at the critical period and yet they were still able to have a revolution, which – surely – invalidates the argument that it was the “Web wot done it”.

      The people who believe we can “tweet our way to a better world” remind me of the previous generation who believed they could sing their way to one, which Tom Lehrer satirises in his song “Folk Song Army”

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      1. Alan, no one is arguing that the Web “did it” — obviously people can still organize themselves and revolt without the Internet. No one with any sense is actually claiming that we can tweet our way to a better world. Let’s not get carried away attacking straw men.

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      2. It’s often the intellectuals, poets, painters and musicians who were the first to be murdered or put into camps by many a dictator which would suggest the exact opposite from a historical perspective… while i get the cynicism that is portrayed in Lehers song, music had a role in the social movements of the sixties and to dismiss it would be inaccurate.

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      3. Leigh,

        Music has had a role in revolutions much more recently then the ’60′s

        See here:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Razom_nas_bahato,_nas_ne_podolaty

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      4. it doesnt prove anything…you cannot stop the avalanche when its heading straight down…. no matter if you turn off the internet, coz the group was already created and was full of ppl and messages, if you try to stop the avalanche you will get under it. cheers

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  3. The reason why so many of us ‘doubters’ exist is because the media these days has a way of exaggerating anything that is social media related. So, instead of FB or Twitter being seen as just communication tools that aided protesters to communicate, the media gives these tools an altogether exaggerated importance (Eg: naming it the ‘Twitter Revolution’). Consequently, it begins to sound as if the protest or revolution might have never happened if not for FB or Twitter. Where as, the opposite is true: if FB or Twitter never existed, people would have found other ways of communicating – message boards, emails, pamphlets, etc. – to start and coordinate protests.

    Another thing people seem to forget is that in many of the places where these protests and revolutions are happening, Internet penetration is much lower than it is in the US and other Western countries. As such, the role of the Internet itself in these events is in reality, somewhat lower than what we perceive. Our perception is distorted by the fact that we see and experience these events mostly through Internet-based media.

    This is the reason why many of us doubters feel the need to say nay and say it loudly. We’d like the focus to remain on the people and their issues, and perhaps on the power of the Internet to enable communication. Not on any specific tools like FB or Twitter.

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    1. Thanks for the comment — there is no question that the media can sensationalize things, particularly in headlines. But that still doesn’t justify pundits like Gladwell dismissing the effect of these technologies, and the very real role that they are playing in events like Tunisia and Egypt.

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      1. Absolutely

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    2. I believe it is important to abstract technology precisely because of the hype. What is Twitter and Facebook about? Communication and bonds. Let’s ask, do military groups use complex communication mechanisms? Of course, and they always have. Why? Logistics, but perhaps more importantly for the understanding that the communication was actually an extension of the person or government. Think Rome or Mongolia.

      It is faster and less well written, that is all. But, the power always existed and is only becoming more powerful. There are people on Facebook I have never actually met in person, but are an extension of my social circle in both professional and social manners.

      The word brings the power of unity.

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  4. Chairman Mao made his “power grows from the barrel of a gun” statement in “Quotations from Chairman Mao”, aka “The Little Red Book”, which was every bit as much of a cultural icon of the 60s as Twitter or Facebook are today.

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  5. I see Malcolm’s points here clearer than most. I also see the reaction of those of us who are within the digital economy who frankly work, live, breathe, eat, sell, and market digital interconnectedness as the only world changing factor on earth.

    I see that the several governments belief this, thinking that by shutting down the web would shut down the Egyptian revolution. Not only did it do nothing, by relying on direct engaging the real-time, real-life situation, the people responded by being far more organized.

    In the end, the web/mobile/social is a complimentary communications device but isn’t the tipping point that we technology/communication marketers sell it to be. Many times for both capitalism and for activism.

    Langston Richardson
    @MATSNL65

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  6. I am afraid that Gladwell and many other pundits have missed the point of exactly how social media has influenced events in Egypt and Tunisia. There have been years of average citizens in those countries becoming fluent in the use of Web and mobile social media tools, building more awareness of themselves both as citizens of their nations with voices independent from authoritarian governments and as citizens of Content Nation, the global community of people who have decided to be influential publishers on many scales via social media. The social media of recent days is just tactical, the real changes were strategic, and will be long-lasting. More on Content Nation: http://goo.gl/0AH6m

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    1. Thanks for the comment, John.

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  7. Thomas Rand-Nash Thursday, February 3, 2011

    I’m glad to finally see some push back on Gladwell. While his books may be great for people who think in “master of the obvious” terms, as in, yes, it is true that with enough attention by enough people eventually an important threshold is reached. Yawn. This is popular writing at its best–ignoring a wealth of network theorist, sociologist and physicist work on how networks function in favor of some populalist nonsense which really makes us all less competent about real world affairs. A great example of this is terrorist networks, who operate according to Grannovetter’s weak tie argument. And finally, because no matter what degrees one who was born trailer trash (me!) achieves, I do love ad hominem attacks: Gladwell is a glad-hand, gently stroking and profiting off an ill informed public, which he is helping to convince that simple explanations and intuition are the solution to complex systems.

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    1. I’m kind of fond of ad hominem attacks myself. However, I was just today pointed to a 15 month old article in the Nation which must take 100 times more space to say what you have in your final sentence. Despite my Internet-induced inability to read long articles, I was able to plow through it and found it quite interesting. You can find it at http://ow.ly/3QABn

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    2. Because Gladwell strings observations together to draw a conclusion you say that conclusion is obvious. It’s the choice of observations that he includes that makes his arguments “obvious”. Every generally accepted science, business, and maths book is full of obvious conclusions because the truth rarely strays violently from the path it took to get there. In searching for “more complex systems” you’ve missed the point – “The Tipping Point” isn’t about the fact there is this threshold at which things become popular; it’s in discussing where these tipping points started or how they were achieved.

      You don’t have to discuss every molecule in a leg to talk about how the knee hinges. Gladwell uses your accepted wealth of network theorist, sociologist and physicist work to generalize “obviousness” and then make new conclusions.

      In his book Outliers Gladwell concludes that children born in October (I think it was) are more likely to be pro hockey players because of age cut-offs at their first hockey clubs. They would probably be the biggest kids in that group (kids grow fast, so this age difference is magnified). These best ones would receive more attention. The heightened attention would result in that gap widening each year.

      All obvious facts, but you have to ask the right questions. Your argument reminds me of the NASA spending time creating a zero-gravity pen for space while Soviet Cosmonauts used a pencil.

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  8. FB, Twitter and the humble SMS etc are just communication tools which help disseminate information / views across large number of people very very quickly. And it is for this reason only that these communication tools should be taken seriously irrespective of media sensationalism

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  9. of course Social media play a vital role in Tunisia and Egypt.i was reading a post about Egypt.it says Deep impact of Egypt i would like to share it with every one.http://www.vsocio.com/general/egypt-deep-impact/

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  10. As an activist, I never really considered the internet and the social networking tools today like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc as something like a ‘silver bullet’ that will help us in effecting change in society and without it we would fail or something.

    We view it as just another tool that is available today in achieving our goals.

    I take Gladwell’s position as a reminder to all, especially the sensationalist mainstream-media and “cyber-utopians” to remain grounded in real-life.

    As one Egyptian has aptly said it: ‘Tell Mubarak we don’t need his damn Internet’ http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2011/blog1102c.htm

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