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Twitter Founders: Gladwell Got It Wrong

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“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.

[inline-pro-content]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.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (subscription req’d):

Image courtesy Flickr user evhead.

25 Responses to “Twitter Founders: Gladwell Got It Wrong”

  1. “The real-time exchange of information — a service like Twitter — it would be absurd to think it’s not complementary to activism.”

    I didn’t catch Ev’s talk at all, but if the quote highlighted above as part of the entry is the extent of his argument, then that’s laughable. Gladwell isn’t bringing a a schoolyard argument – he’s bringing some credibility that’s supported by a number of popular, best-selling books (though his anecdotal ‘science’ leaves much to be desired for many). The public has spoken and if you want to really compete with him, I think you need to do better.

    Gladwell spoke about a similar subject in Vancouver earlier this year at the F5 Expo. Some people really held him accountable and I thought that was great. I wouldn’t take what Gladwell says as a refutation, but more of a challenge. Social media, by itself, cannot create action or develop real human relationships. I think it can, however, facilitate their development and maintenance.

  2. altricaj

    I’m with Gladwell on this one. Let’s just look at the examples in the above article. Nothing changed in Iran. In fact, it was hard to know if tweets coming from Iran were actually from Iran at all. And Haiti has not been rebuilt in the slightest, much of the money never arrived, and it’s already off most people’s radar.

    So exactly how did social media help in either of these two cases? I’m not anti-social media, I just think people get too carried away with its power. If anything it gives people the illusion of power. Like the new opium of the masses.

  3. As I read the backlash on Mr. Gladwell’s article I wonder if the social media hypesters even read the thing. His premise seems very straight-forward and does not in any way dismiss the potential of the social web to connect, communicate and heal. My impression if that the social evangelists are so wired to be in a defensive mode they can’t process reasonable criticism. Oh well, perhaps I am the only blogger in the world who actually agreed with Gladwell … and in fact thought he probably didn’t take the argumnet far enough. I wrote about it here:

    Is social media creating a generation of cowards?

  4. The re-tweeting on a topic account is already being exploited. One of them just retweets every tweet containing the iPad. Fail to see why it’s ever going to be a good thing. Why should bots be acceptable on Twitter?

  5. Anonymous

    Nice misquote to create a more sensational first sentence. If you actually read the quote later on you can see that the word ‘ludicrous’ was not used in relation to the Gladwell article at all.

    Here is the quote:

    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

  6. Laughable? Hardly. Let’s stop over-hyping the contributions the social digerati are over-zealously dishing out. Pace yourselves. The world isn’t moving as fast as you believe it is. It’s just getting smaller and more visible.

  7. Gladwell’s perspective on this issue is just silly. 100 years ago, he would have discounted the telephone as a valuable form of communication because it doesn’t create as strong ties as in person meetings… I posted about this a week back: Why The Revolution Will Start on Twitter (and YouTube and Blogs) and End in the Streets

  8. It seems that everyone critiquing Gladwell’s article (including people in my own office) continue to the miss the larger point, and refuse to give Gladwell some credit for making the larger point that we should be careful and not bestow false accolades on social media for changing the course of history. While social media activism (clickvism) is an important and valuable tool, the real agents of change are human beings who then take action through the power of strong ties. Weak ties are important, but not as important as the strong ties that push us from clickvism into activism. Social media is just another word for Internet communication we’ve had since day one. The way we parse and display information may be different today, based on new technologies, but it all goes back whether you sit behind your desk and push for change, or actually get out of your chair and do something about it. And to @richardstacy, I say that “passive consent” is inherently weak in its passivity, and because it can be falsified. You can get 1 Million followers on Facebook, because it takes nothing to get some people riled up to click on a button. But try getting one million people to the town square to protest. That’s a little different than the clickivism of which you speak. It’s dangerous to ascribe commitment to ideas to invisible people who may not be who they say they are. Internet activism can turn out to be manipulated and fraudulent. The only real way you can know when you’re got people standing behind you, is then they actually show up to the party and literally stand behind you.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  14. 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