Blog Post

Gladwell Still Missing the Point About Social Media and Activism

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. I’d have to agree with the author of the post. Social media makes news spread like wildfire. Not only is it fast, it has a great scope. Just look at youtube these days – many clips in the top page which were about the egyptian revolution during its peak.

  2. Thanks for this, Matthew.

    Gladwell’s Tipping Point has long been one of my favorite books, because it shows through numerous examples how ideas spread thoughout society to produce actual change. The degrees of separation, the relative importance of each connection point and the power of weak ties were powerful forces *even before the internet.*

    So like you, I am baffled by the fact that along comes technology that allow all of those things to happen easier, better, faster, with more intelligence than ever before — and Gladwell dismisses them.

    I write about the strength of weak ties and why I also think Gladwell misses the mark here: http://goodmenproject.com/arts/why-im-social-media-promiscuous/

    http://goodmenproject.com/arts/why-im-social-media-promiscuous/

  3. unless there is actual empirical evidence of such acceleration, simply using ‘social media’ as a synonym for ‘networked communication tool’ proves nothing (other than that better communication tools support better mass movements, which, i think, has never really been in question). at present, other than passionate claims that it did and a few anecdotal stories of the internet providing an avenue to reach the rest of the world, there is simply no such evidence. no numbers, no historical accounts of events on the ground, no alternative explanations. nor is there any behavioural explanation of why cellphones with SMS and group messaging would produce different outcomes than facebook & twitter (they might, but where’s the evidence?)

    while gladwell clearly doesn’t have empirical evidence to *disprove* the acceleration claims you make, at least his argument is more empirically reasoned and historically vetted than “but it probably helps make the revolution go faster!”. if no one’s claiming that twitter will start revolutions, and by corollary, no one’s claiming that getting twitter into a country will *cause* revolutions, then i’m not sure what exactly the point of this post (or this larger argument) is.

    and for the techno-optimists here, there is a long (20 year old) history of development projects relying on technology, that have failed miserably. see http://www.sed.manchester.ac.uk/idpm/research/publications/wp/di/di_wp11.htm

  4. I’m a huge Gladwell fan but I have to go against him on this one. There’s no way to do a side by side parallel test (the with Twitter/Facebook revolution vs the Old School revolution) but just from my point of view the rate at which eyewitness accounts are spread and the multiple viewpoints make social networking (for me) a major role player. It’s like having a million tiny points of influence propelling the masses rather than restrained, dosed out impetus from conventional media.

  5. A lot of words used to explain a simple phenomenon. Simply social media simply recorded and to a limited extent helped in communicating and organizing, an organic evolving demand for change. A mere tool. Nothing more and nothing less.

  6. morealtitude

    To dismiss the issue as uninteresting borders on academic negligence- there are so many facinating nuances to explore. Through my own ‘weak ties’ via social networking, I can follow updates from a contact in Tahrir square as they treat wounded protestors and post lists of needed medical supplies, then Tweet my own support and encouragement of the work he’s doing. It’s this sort of interactivity in global events that the world witnessed with the televisation of the Vietnam War in the United States- a technological reality which suddenly gave every voting American the opportunity to be involved in a new way with events that would normally be the realm of others far away (soldiers overseas, politicians). The result was a public outcry and a substantial socio-political movement that forced policy-change and ultimately change of government. While television wasn’t the exlusive catalyst for this change, it was a lubricant. Likewise the use of Twitter, Facebook, etc. in social movements today contribute, and, as you rightly argue, are a fascinating facet. -MA

  7. i don’t understand the discussion – although your last paragraph is clarifying on the point – why we always need to judge the importance of social media in ANY event now.
    it’s not like people used to scream and shout ‘OMG i heard about the Hindenburg on the RA-DEE-OOH!’ that’s one tiny detail. what matters should be what actually happens.
    sometimes it seems to me that the twitter addicts and facebook fanatics (am maybe the first, definitively not the latter) need a reason to justify the incredible amount of time they are spending on social media websites, and NOT helping a revolution or distributing important information about a natural disaster (tw/fb very useful during Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi in Oz) but doing what most people (including me) are doing on these sites : wasting time talking about incredible mundane and useless stuff.

  8. Interesting post! Having read the Tipping Point recently, I am surprised by Gladwell’s stance on social media. I just did a unit with my high school journalism students on the changing face of journalism and social media’s role in that. We looked at Facebook and Twitter and read many journalists’ accounts of its impact on the spread of valid information.

    My students (some of whom aren’t naturally interested in what’s going on in the world) became riveted at how a tool they use every day is so legitimate when used appropriately. They started paying more attention and coming in to class telling me things they learned from “liking” professional Facebook pages. We also looked at the negatives of social media (of which they are acutely aware), leading to an examination of the shift in our views of privacy. Young people (such as those leading the revolution in Egypt) view social media differently than the rest of us: when you’ve always connected that way, it doesn’t seem uninteresting or invalid. It’s just life.

  9. It has been fascinating to me to listen to people as I go about my errands exclaim what someone just tweeted from Egypt. I no longer get my news with my morning newspaper or watching The National – I get it all day long, person to person.
    How can this not impact you?

  10. Gazoobee

    I think you are overlooking something really quite obvious here. The Egyptian revolution is a prime example of why Gladwell is right and you are wrong in that it went on for many days (and these days were arguably the most critical of the movement), *without* Internet access and *without* Twitter and Facebook. This particular revolution occurred in the *absence* of the benefits of the new social media and yet the revolution still happened, exactly as Gladwell says. You simply don’t make the case for, and the Egyptian revolution is a particularly bad example of, the idea that the presence of social media materially increases the ability of the people to organise.

  11. Mathew,

    I have actually been in a revolution (The Orange Revolution in Ukraine) and I think you hit it about right here.

    Although I agree that there is something annoying about people sipping latte’s and tweeting about how much good they are doing in the world, social media does, in fact, play a role.

    One interesting aspect is that social media not only helps spread information, it does so in a very diverse way without a focal point. I believe that this has something to do with why the recent revolutions have been surprisingly peaceful.

    For anybody whose interested, you can read about my experiences in the Orange Revolution and how they relate to social media here:

    http://www.digitaltonto.com/2010/small-acts-of-courage-and-revolution/

    – Greg

  12. Gladwell has a very valid point: It is may well be true that this-or-that technology helped, incited, whatnot, but this should certainly not be the main issue in news reporting—possibly, not even more than a brief side-bar or a short analysing article.

    For historians, social scientists, and the like, this help would be a very interesting topic worthy of attention (but even here just one of several such topics); however, for a newspaper and the general public other issues should be given far more attention. Facebook is a means, not an end, and the quote by Mao (to continue this analogy) is more important through its content and implications than through the medium of delivery.

  13. Rosemary

    the phrase “tools of the new media to communicate with one another” reminds me of the former new media of the printing press and the radical impact that had at the time

  14. Although I am a big Gladwell fan, I disagree partially with the role of social media in the mobilizing of the mass movement. Yes, mass movements were happening before the emergence of Twitter and FB, but I’d pose that mass movements are happening faster and oftener than ever before. We just don’t recognize them.

    As I mention in my blog (http://wp.me/p1gyG8-Z), Seth Godin, in his book the Tribe, describes one role of social media is to bring together the small niches of groups with similar frustrations or likes. How else would the owners of suped-up Saturns get to know each other, let alone organize car rallies? It’s the theory of the long tail.

    Companies use social media to create communities (or “tribes”) of those who are experiencing similar frustrations. They create small movements that focus on hope and vision. It might be just a cleaning supply, but they’re selling hope. Instead of seeking revolution, companies seek brand loyalty and purchases.

    There’s not that much different with mass movements. They require a leader to facilitate conversations and bring a vision of change. They activate the frustrated masses. They promote recruiting and loyalty. They provide a sense of belonging.

    Social media simply boosts the speed at which movements happen. It brings the frustrated together in a platform.

    Would we have mass movements without the internet? Of course, but with the internet, cell phones, and our Twitter accounts, we speed the gathering and spreading of vision.

    Mubarack shut down the internet, but it was too late. The movement had been mobilized. Hope had been spread, and enough of the masses discovered others felt the same. They’d been gathered. The tribe was formed. At that point, there was not stopping them.

  15. Mathew,

    I think you’ve gotten it about right here and I’m speaking as someone (unlike Malcolm Gladwell) who actually experienced a revolution (The Orange Revolution in Ukraine).

    I wrote about my experiences and how social media does (and doesn’t) fit in here: http://www.digitaltonto.com/2010/small-acts-of-courage-and-revolution/

    Social media isn’t a necessary nor a sufficient cause, but it can be helpful. Especially when the regime is using mass media to distort reality.

    (One striking similarity of both Egypt and Ukraine is the use of mass media to show false images of what was going on in the respective squares which were focal points).

    Gladwell is right that we had revolutions before Twitter (In Ukraine, Internet bulletin boards and SMS’s were used, before that, fax machines, etc.)

    However, what has been true of all the recent revolutions is that technology was used in interesting ways that outfoxed powerful regimes.

    Perhaps even more interesting is the effect of these technologies. It seems to me that revolutions that thrive on social network communications (which would include fax machines) have been able to succeed peacefully where those that have focused on a heroic figure (i.e. Iran) have been much more violent.

    It is small acts of courage, mostly by ordinary people, that really makes the difference. It seems to me that social communication helps to drive those small acts.

    – Greg

    • I liked the point you made about distorting reality.

      Gladwell may have shrugged off the role (real and assumed) of social media in political discourse, but I think it’s important for us to be aware of its power.

      Time and again governments have doctored news and publicized disproportionate accounts of events for political gains – in the former USSR, Bolivia, India, and the USA.

      Case in point – the entire fear psychosis surrounding 9/11 and US elections and foreign policy thereafter. I use the word ‘fear psychosis’ because it was as much generated from real-life accounts of affected people as from (if not more) the not-very-tacitly expressed government propaganda.

      What I’m driving at is – social media tools are increasingly becoming a part of our personal lives. You can tell what a certain section of people are thinking and feeling about a certain event by a demographic study of reports from one of these communities.

      To doctor events and news in these communities – which is not difficult – is to doctor people’s feelings. A large number of people’s feelings.

      I think it’s time that we recognize the opportunities and threats it presents us with. Because I can see virtual reality affecting us – our opinions, feelings, prejudices as well as financial decisions – in a way we were not anticipating when we were in high school.

  16. I think for many people in developing countries (such as mine, Indonesia) it is the combination of the social media (twitter, facebook) and the relatively affordable mobile devices (such as blackberry which always connected to the network) which bring the significant change in how people communicate and connected. We have a quantum leap because of the ubiquity of this new platform. I assume people in Tunisia and Egypt might get the same benefit like we have in Indonesia. Please note, before this new era, it is difficult to get an internet access because the cable infastructure is not there…but we now don’t even need that cable; everything is wireless and always connected to the net

    On the same point, I think Gladwell cannot see this value because he is in the environment which not interact via mobile devices alot (I took a big assumption here)

  17. michaeldavisburchat

    why is everyone in geekdom so hurt by gladwell not wanting to over-inflate the role of social media in the case of egypt, or tunisia for that matter? what if he is right? are you capable of proving he is not from first principles? or simply from ad hominen and contradictions.

    “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.”

    when i got that sentence you set me up for a mind re-framing revelation. but i am still waiting for it.

    … so the real point would be?? please share a real point, dear journalist.

    perhaps you could take a minute or two to construct an argument of your own ideas, using your own evidence… and leave mister gladwell to his own.

    it doesn’t seem so hard in this situation. there is plenty of the media to go around.

  18. Would these revolutions be happening if it wasn’t for Facebook and Twitter. No. The simple fact is that they are broadcast technologies that can’t easily be clamped down on and they can reach millions of people instantly in a way that SMS or email never could.

    As Ian says above in the comments though you won’t be having revolutions in every country in the world because of Facebook and Twitter but instead there needs to be genuine social unrest there which there seems to be across the middle East. F+T are just the thin end of the wedge that has helped push this over in to the mainstream but are a crucial part of the process

  19. buyer beware

    Early days. This week it was discovered that messages linked in one way or another to Vodafone could be from the Egyptian government as propoganda or from a UK government funded company inserting commercial links to shopping websites in blogs and tweets that mentioned Vodafone, much to the annoyance of bloggers who complained on Twitter their content was soiled.

    http://twitter.com/marjoleink/status/33173589851115520

    When the strength of a network comes from the ease with which people can connect, that network can quickly become less trustworthy.

  20. I find it odd, as it seems you do, that Gladwell is so dismissive about this phenomena. Maybe it’s that social media’s role in activism hasn’t yet reached a “Tipping Point” of sorts thereby not indicating to Gladwell it necessary of discussion.

    In all of the talk on this subject, I can’t help but think back to Obama’s campaign of 2008. Some may call his campaign an activism of sorts and it was certainly revolutionary for its usage of social media. Nonetheless, I think that until there is a bout of social media utilization like this within a ‘true’ activist movement, we won’t really see blessings from experts like Gladwell.

    With Love and Gratitude,

    Jeremiah

  21. Interesting and powerful piece Mr. Ingram. It is amazing to see how ignorant and stupid people can be as they push strong facts to the side. I believe that the internet, social media and mass media as a whole have been influence this situation greatly. As the situation grows, where are people outside of these countries recieving their facts and information? It is obvious that it is through social networking. Social media, cell phones, sms, twitter, facebook, etc. became important for citizens to share and mobilize their discontent into street protest. Social media have amplified and accelerated the protesters to higher levels.
    This is a new age of technology and we have to accept the fact that society is not what it used to be. Social media is what will change the outcome of these rebellions and conflict.

  22. Social media is the tool that can galvanize and organize people faster than every before. Of course the revolution has to be grounded in real life. I think social media acts as a lubricant in Gladwell’s “law of the few” argument in Tipping Point. The law of the few states that a small number of very special people (mavens, connectors, salesmen) are able to transmit lots of information and convince people of new ideas. Those special people are still needed. It is just that many of them use social media as a tool now, when before, they did not.

    I saw Malcolm Gladwell speak at a conference and he was really interesting. I liked his book too.

  23. Social media are broadboad communication tools.
    No different….except there is multi-faceted capture of dialogue.

    But like T.V., it is still one step removed from reality:

    For instance I am an ardent regular cyclist for nearly 20yrs. The cycling community worldwide uses social media in many ways, but mobilizing real change in changing urban design for sustainable communities and transportation options, means not just blogging, twittering or FBing on the coach/in the cafe, but getting same people to take the next REAL step: bike several times a wk., for a few years just to experience a life transformative experience. (It can be health-wise and money-wise!)

    Social media just provides your info. from other people at a faster pace and globally.

    It’s not enough to be hip on social media ranting about the latest revolution that needs to roll-out, but living and being with real people where they hurt, etc.

  24. Social evolution has never been this fast in the age of electronic communications.

    Yesterday, words reached or were carried by bare feet, by horsemen, later by ships. Europeans never knew the original Americans and the Asians or the other way around. Social evolution developed independently by regions.

    Today, say, Chinese open their PC and lo they are looking out the window and see what are good [or bad] next door.

    And societies that are socially behind, by sticking to their backwardness, are now rocked. Status quo at the top are having problem with populace that tend to spring forward.