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Summary:

After the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, many wondered whether author Malcolm Gladwell would alter his skeptical stance on social media — but he made it clear in a CNN interview that he still doesn’t think tools like Twitter or Facebook make much of a difference.

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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, 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.

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  1. Jarred Taylor Tuesday, March 29, 2011

    I love how the caption for the embedded CNN video labels Gladwell a “social media expert.” Please.

    1. Yes, I liked that part too — it’s interesting that you can be a social media expert without actually using Twitter at all :-)

      1. I think “guru” is the term they really intended to use…

  2. Ian Andrew Bell Tuesday, March 29, 2011

    Malcolm Gladwell has clearly figured out the most effective way to increase his notoriety via social media.

    1. True, Ian — and I guess I am enabling him in that way :-)

      1. Maybe this is all a sort of experiment/research for his next book?

  3. Gladwell is probably right.

    Less than 10% of the combined populations of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria have internet access. Add to that the literacy rate across these four countries averages approximately 68% of the adult population. It’s unlikely these penetration rates translate into the levels of protest seen in the streets.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Peter — the point isn’t so much whether these tools caused all of the protests that we saw, but more whether they played a crucial role in helping to spread the news to key groups and thus led to some kind of tipping point.

      1. Actually, that IS the point. Advocates claim electronic social media tools were essential. But adoption and penetration and literacy rates show that can’t be the case. Doesn’t mean Gladwell is right (or wrong.) Just… is.

      2. Agree with Peter. Also, i disagree with sociologist Zeynep Tufekci re “intellectual laziness” – she clearly doesn’t grasp simple logic. If I can show that A (revolutions) occurred without B (social media) in the past, then the argument that A needs B to occur now is flawed.

      3. “Tipping point.” Nice turn of phrase, Matthew.

    2. Peter, thanks for bringing some balance to this conversation. According to Unicef only 18% of Egyptians use the internet. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/egypt_statistics.html

    3. Overall internet penetrations are completely irrelevant. What’s important is the penetration among the protesters, which were young, educated and urban and typically have penetrations 2-3 times the general populations in developing countries.

      Further, I think your numbers are way off. The latest figures are the following:

      Egypt: 21%
      Tunisia: 34%
      Libya: 5.5%
      Algeria: 13.6%

      You can find the figures here: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm

      1. Thanks for that, Greg.

  4. At this point, to suggest that social media tools have no impact is about as compelling as suggesting that they are all-important.

    Also, why on earth would governments, corporations, or any significant body for that matter, want to limit itself to merely monitoring social media? I mean, if Leon Panetta doesn’t have an entire team dedicated to leveraging contemporary communication technology to affect outcomes, is he really doing his job?

  5. Given the recent report published by Yahoo (http://mashable.com/2011/03/28/twitter-study-consumed/), I somewhat agree with what Gladwell is saying, at least with regards to Twitter.

  6. “…despite the growing evidence to the contrary.” Not to support Gladwell here, because I don’t, but what is the growing evidence that Facebook and Twitter contributed? I’m inclined to argue that they did, but I feel like I’m accepting conventional wisdom without any real evidence.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Josh — among the evidence (which I’m not arguing is 100% conclusive by any means) are reports from those involved who said these tools were crucial, which I have linked to in past posts about it, including Wael Ghonim in Egypt and several sources involved in Tunisia.

      1. Just to keep playing devil’s advocate here, there’s a pretty good case for a causation/correlation argument here. Just because the folks who make the case that they *perceived* these tools to cause tipping point effects doesn’t mean they actually *caused* them…

      2. Thanks for a great article as well as following up with the comments Mathew. If you had some links handy that you could post, it would be great. I’ve looked back through several posts but couldn’t find the info you were referring to.

    2. Here are some comments from Wael Ghonim about the role that Facebook played (and yes, he may be overstating the case, but he is in a better position to know than we are): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/11/egypt-facebook-revolution-wael-ghonim_n_822078.html

      And here are some comments about Tunisia and the role that Twitter played, from someone involved: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/firas-alatraqchi/tunisias-revolution-was-t_b_809131.html

      1. The Soc Med set has been a lot quieter about Libya, but I wonder if you noticed that they have been having a little revolution largely without social media.

  7. Jeff Jacobsen Tuesday, March 29, 2011

    Gladwell’s point seems to be if it’s not needed it’s not important. The Internet and cell phones are the latest tools for revolution. If you’re not using the latest tools to do something, you’re just slowing yourself down.

    1. Exactly. There were revolutions before they invented the printing press as well.

  8. If it truly isn’t a big deal, then why did the government in Egypt feel the need to turn off the internet?

    1. Great question, Brian.

      1. Because they can, and with business already paralyzed, it doesn’t really hurt to do it?

        It’s the same issue as censoring newspapers. An incendiary columnist probably won’t cause a revolution, but he’ll be arrested and the paper closed anyway.

        Governments declaring martial law typically close universities too. That doesn’t mean that students are indispensable to revolutionary movements, nor (and here’s the analogy) that shutting down classes means you’ve ended the revolution, but being (a) literate and presumably educated (b) in a free-thinking environment and most importantly (c) without much to lose in terms of employment, children, etc, they’re certainly likely to be in the vanguard.

        I think this all pushes to the conclusion that these things are an advantage to a small elite who of course can’t make a revolution alone but can certainly be the catalyst to making one.

  9. Social media expert and has his own hashtag without using twitter? Winning. Let’s organize a tweetup at his office and see how many show up then ask him how many people usually randomly show up at his work.

  10. Evan Blackford Tuesday, March 29, 2011

    By focusing purely on a debatable tactical assessment of the organizing utility of these tools, I believe Gladwell is missing an important point about culture, groups, and how they see themselves. To vastly over-generalize, the folks who started these revolutions have something in common: they’re young, and they use social media. The folks they rose up against are old, and don’t use social media. Social media provided a tangible lens through which protest organizers to saw themselves as better, hipper, smarter, more current, etc, and further emphasized the differences for this key group of early organizers between “Self” and “Other.” Again, I’m not talking about the masses who ultimately turned out and struck the decisive blow against these regimes. I’m talking about the organizers and early adopters.

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