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Gladwell Still Missing the Point About Social Media and Activism

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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

96 Responses to “Gladwell Still Missing the Point About Social Media and Activism”

  1. “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.”

    I’m not sure about this. Populist movements/revolutions of the past were fueled by people coming together to instigate change and yet somehow they did this without Twitter, SMS or phones. People certainly had to work harder and be more creative to create the kind of critical mass that we’ve seen with Egypt (and other countries), but make no mistake, these movements happened because of a fundamental desire for social and economic change. I think it’s too hypothetical to credit Twitter usage as a major catalyst for what’s happening in Egypt. What’s to say that anything would be different in Egypt if Twitter didn’t exist?

  2. The bottom line is the Government over there hit the kill switch to cut off their opponents communications and to blackout the media.

    My biggest gripe with all of our techno triumphalism (marketing) it is the Internet is no substitute for real action, change, and genuine human interaction.

    In many ways 15 years later we are worse off then when the Rolling Stones kicked off the Win 95 era with start me up and Gates promised “anyone can publish”. Now it’s anyone can Tweet or play FarmVille on FB.

    We got a ways to go.

    • But that’s the point, Steve — no one is saying that the Internet is a substitute for real action or human interaction. My point is that they work well together and each builds on the strengths of the other. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I think that Twitter and Facebook have definably changed how we think, talk, react to the world around us. However, part of me wants to believe that the riots in Egypt would have happened even if Facebook and Twitter did not exist.

  4. Marco A.

    Gladwell is a humanist. Most of his writing is about people thinking creatively to overcome societal limitations: the beautiful loser who rises to the top through cleverness and persistence. For him, technology is just a tool – it only detracts from the story, which is always about people.

  5. Thanks for the interesting post! It’s spawned some great conversation here in the comments section. There are too many great points on both sides here for me to be on either one but I do think that the social media has played a role in Egypt/Tunisia (whether how big or small it was I can’t say) and that it shouldn’t be mistaken for what I think is ‘true activism’ which someone else has already said takes place on the streets.

  6. Chris Dorr

    Good piece. The people of Egypt did not revolt “because” of social media. There are a whole host of underlying reasons that they are aware of every day. The reason social media, cell phones, sms, twitter, facebook, etc. became important for them is that allowed them to share and mobilize their discontent into street protest. And yes, people still talk face to face and in groups where they gather together–as we all do. And they obviously did that as well. Social media amplified and accelerated the organization of a few that quickly scaled up to the many.

  7. I dunno, Mathew…I feel like you missed Gladwell’s point. First let me state that I am a user of social media tools and a believer in its power to help people communicate. That said, I read Gladwell’s article and yes – he was flippant at times when addressing the importance of social media in activist activity – however his argument didn’t ring false (at least to me). There IS a very BIG difference between tweeting your support for a cause and putting your butt on the line. I feel like you flippantly addressed this fact in your piece (IMHO).

    So, Gladwell addressed the strengths of social media in his piece and he effectively said, that’s all well and good but real change – sustained change – comes from putting your butt on the line (that and strategic organization). Where’s the flaw in this argument?

    Now that I really think about it – What point exactly were you trying to make other than you didn’t like Gladwell’s tone?

    • Thanks for the comment, Jason — my point is that it’s not a binary question. It’s not that paying attention to how people organized or spread the word, and the role social media played in that, somehow invalidates the actual real-life sacrifices that those people are making. It’s that Gladwell is ignoring how those two things work together — how social media accelerates the process, which I think is an important and interesting phenomenon. And the reasons he gives for dismissing the role it plays are inadequate, in my view, and miss the larger point.

  8. Stanley S.

    I’ve got to say, I’m with Gladwell on this. “Social Media,” is a communication channel, simply in near- or real- time. But, all too often, a Tweet or Post are mistaken for actual activism (“I Tweeted my support for the Egyptian people, therefore, I’m an activist”).

    “Social Media” is by and large passive and unidirectional. It can be more circle-jerk than intercourse. And, it’s more of an advertising channel than anything else.

    The Egyptian government didn’t have a clue how to handle the events that transpired; their knee-jerk reaction to shut down the internet and mobile doesn’t make them brilliant — it makes them knee-jerkers hoping something might quiet things down. It didn’t.

    The love of “Social Media” is most often touted by those who make a living within it. Television has more impact on the masses than FB or Twitter, even though that’s digital heresy, it’s accurate.

    • I disagree that social media are passive and unidirectional, or that it is more of an advertising channel than anything else. I would argue that you are following the wrong people if that’s your perception of it — like most other communication media, Twitter is what you make of it.

      • What percentage of your FB or Twitter correspondence is conversational in nature?

        What percentage is self promotion?

        Re: your Followers and consumption, is it a news/entertainment source, or is it conversational?


  9. WordPress, twitter, flickr, youtube, facebook etc. now also in the hands of Arabian youth will change the old political systems, established in the sixties. Old dictatorships and family clans will lose the fight against the mobile generation and their great information technologies without any fence open to a world wide connectivity, political support, connected with nations, who already have a democracy – and twitter, facebook, wordpress :-)

  10. Great post, Mathew, as usual. I have written on my personal blog (not on my research one) on Gladwell and criticizing him so often that if I drop all the posts I’ve written about it on here you’ll think I am a spammer. And I won’t do that.

    Zeynep is a sociologist by training, so it’s not a surprise that she understands Granovetter. Anybody who has studied mobilizations and networks has had to understand the literature. But she is an academic. Gladwell isn’t. That’s something I have tried to imbue in people’s minds. Gladwell is a popularizer of social science, not a producer of social science. He has no empirical evidence to back up his claims.

    In my research on environmental NGO mobilizations, I have looked at how they organize. I recently spoke at Social Media Camp Victoria (2010) on how the transnational networks of activists I have studied in the past 10 years (all of them working on issues of toxic pollutant releases) have NOT used Twitter, Facebook, etc. as organizational methods. They use a simple e-mail and list-serve. However, if we realize that these list-serves have been employed by networks of activists in the process of building communities, then we should name them social media too (they are indeed social, as they connect people, and they are media in that they are information transmission vehicles). Thus, activists have been using social media ever since they started using list-serves, forums and the like (people completely forget about these social networking dynamics by focusing solely on Twitter, Facebook, Quora, etc.)

    Gladwell misses the point in many ways, but the most important thing is – people seem to NOT understand that weak ties are not ties that are irrelevant. Much to the contrary, Granovetter’s PhD thesis was focused on explaining how these weak ties were indeed key in helping people find new jobs. New job seekers could have not done that had they not had a large network of weak ties. The “strong” in strong ties ONLY means that those who belong to that network are considered VERY close to you. If you don’t get out of your strong ties network and branch out to a network of weak ties, the chances of you getting a job are minimal (that’s what Granovetter did in his 1972 PhD thesis from where he derives “the strength of weak ties”).

    The first thing that people need to do is read academic articles the right way, and understand what it really is meant by strong and weak ties. Strong ties aren’t always helpful, and weak ties aren’t always unhelpful. That’s something Gladwell, and many other commentators fail to explain. A normative view of Granovetter’s point would be – go to a network of weak ties if you need to expand your reach, go to your network of strong ties if you need support within. And as Zeynep says, weak and strong are not ontologically different.

    And I just dropped a comment so long that I’m going to reproduce it in my blog. Here’s the first of several posts where I criticize Gladwell’s comments (I met the guy in person when he came to keynote a talk at F5Expo and when I asked him whether he used Twitter he said “I don’t know who the person behind the @MalcolmGladwell account is – maybe my publicist?”). I am NOT kidding.

    • Thanks for the comment, Raul — I am glad you and Zeynep have brought the full meaning of Granovetter’s research and what it suggests about social media to light. It’s very important not just in this context but lots of others as well.

      • There’s another aspect as well. The term “Weak Ties” is in reference to the network, not the ties themselves.

        For example, I live in Europe and have lots of close ties here. I’m also an American and have lots of friends and family there. These are strong ties to me but weak ties with respect to each other.

        Moreover, as Mathew pointed out, these “triads” tend to close over time.

        Finally, I think his obsession with weak ties shows just how little Gladwell knows about Revolutions. Most of the time, you’re standing around (and if it’s Kiev in November, freezing your ass off), searching for information. What’s going on? Where is danger most likely? What do they need down on the square? How long will this go on? Will they give in.

        Strong ties, in this context, are completely useless. Those close to you usually have the same facts you do, so you search your weak ties – somebody you know who knows somebody else. (Which, as Granovetter pointed out, is what people do when they look for jobs).

        – Greg

  11. 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.

  12. “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.”

    Absolutely, positively, spot on! Regardless of whether the tools served as the inspiration, they were still fundamentally vital in the process. Hence the government’s reaction.

    And I for one loved your reference to “tipping point” in that sentence, too. Though Gladwell may not…


  13. I think what’s happening here is that a well intended effort to not overshadow a revolution, with the cause or the means of it, is turning into a bigger issue than was ever intended.

    I bet that if you caught this guy in a dark alley – gun in hand – that he would easily admit that social media played a large part of all this (being that his life was on the line, *Note – it is not advisable that you actually do this.)

    However, branding, reputation, and machismo being what it is, i bet that under any other circumstance that he would never admit that he was telling a little white lie, in order to thrust the proverbial power in the correct seat.
    Ego is such a blastedly silly thing

  14. It appears to me that this is a classic example of “tubevision.”

    Remember how the gulf war was claimed to be a CNN war? Not because CNN had much of a stake in it, but because they were reporting on it in real time. They made a war ‘more real’ and closer to home than ever before.

    Now with twitter and Facebook millions of people far away from the protests see minute to minute updates in their Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the news media recognized also that it’s a great way to get information from (a few) people close to the source.

    If anything has changed in the way ‘revolutions’ play out it’s the fact that more information in leaking out, and at a faster rate than ever before. It changed how the outside world sees and reports on these events, brought it directly to the computers of citizens in other countries, there no doubt about that.

    That said, the big question is whether or not it changed revolution?

    I don’t think it has.

    Revolutions don’t start on Twitter and Facebook. The overwhelming majority of the people in the streets in Egypt have no idea what Facebook or Twitter is. More than half doesn’t even have Internet access. These tools may have helped to spread information, mostly to the outside world, but saying that they play a vital role (as some have done) is discrediting the Twitterless people who’ve waged their lives to fight for a cause they feel is right.

  15. 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’

  16. 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

  17. Thomas Rand-Nash

    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.

    • Rick Ladd

      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

    • 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.

  18. 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:

  19. 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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  22. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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”

      • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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

  23. 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 ;)