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Malcolm Gladwell: Social Media Still Not a Big Deal

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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 (s twx), 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.

67 Responses to “Malcolm Gladwell: Social Media Still Not a Big Deal”

  1. Good analysis, Mr. Ingram. Social networking was not responsible for the Arab revolutions and protests, but glibly denying or downplaying its importance to movement leaders is ignoring well documented facts, particularly in Egypt. (What makes Mr. Gladwell an authority on communication methods among Arab revolutionaries?)

    The argument that “people communicated before x, y, or z was invented” is not merely intellectually lazy, it’s intellectually dishonest. Throughout history, all changes in communication technology and behavior have had deep impacts on societies and on historical outcomes, large and small, for good and ill. Steam engines, telegraph lines, telephones, satellites, the internet and, until the next big thing, social networking…each in its turn changed the speed and dynamics of communication.

    For the Egyptian revolutionaries social networking was not a diversion from their very dangerous reality: It was one of the tools that they used to change that reality. Communication matters.

  2. I think Gladwell has a point though. Social media tools are an enabler behind the revolutions and revolts, not the reason for them. The reason for them is an ideology and purpose, which is the fuel…

    I wrote a piece about this at my blog, which I think takes an interesting point of view on the story and interview.

    Malcolm Gladwell – The Power of Ideology: The Fuel, the fans, the flames.

  3. Thanks for this Mathew.

    Another interesting point is how much Gladwell has scaled back. In his original article, he made very specific arguments (i.e. strong ties and hierarchy). Now, it is just a general, “well, revolutions happened before social media, so what’s the big deal?” He seems to be backtracking.

    Others like to point out (like some of the comments here), that internet penetrations are very small in the countries where uprising occurs.

    Well, having experienced a revolution myself, I can state from first hand experience that both arguments are specious.

    First of all, as I explained in one of my posts (, the most important commodity during political unrest is information. You’re constantly going around, finding out what’s happening where, who needs help, will the troops be sent in? and so on. Looking for information is what you spend most of your time doing. Social media is enormously helpful in that regard.

    Secondly, although general internet penetrations are low in those countries, they are much higher in the young urban populations that drive the protests. Citing overall levels is completely irrelevant (and a bit silly).

    Lastly, as I argued in another post (, while the focus is often on big, heroic acts, it is small acts of courage that make the difference. Tweeting might not be gallant, but social media allows more people to participate.

    Thanks again for keeping this alive. Social media is not definitive, but it is very helpful and there are still a lot of dark places in the world.

    – Greg

  4. Andrew Mueller

    It seems that people have almost completely overlooked what may have been the most effective Social Media tool at all at bringing about at tipping point. That tool would be YouTube and the videos that Asmaa Mahfouz made and posted to YouTube and were embedded in Facebook and else where. As well as the videos that showed the protests and Gov’t responses sometimes brutal.

    No doubt, that revolutions can occur without social media but it would be hard to argue that Social media does not have a significant affect on the speed at which sentiment can spread and infect a group and revolutionaries could organize efforts.

    To understand this more fully we must also understand that social media is not siloed from traditional media; they now feed off each other magniifying the depth, breadth, and impact of the information they contain.

    We may also want to consider SMS (text messaging) as a social media tool and how this contributed to the speed at which these revolutions have taken place.

    Clearly these tools align sentiment and affect the speed at which dissent can manifest and organize. I cannot see how Social media anyone can argue that social media did not play a significant role in enabling these revolutions.

  5. Bill Gary

    The literacy rate of the American Colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War wasn’t that high either, yet most would agree that the writings of Thomas Paine and others played a big role in pushing the revolt. Why can’t the same concept hold today in the Middle East? Just because some can’t access the communication technology of the day doesn’t mean they don’t hear what’s transmitted–there’s always word of mouth acting as an echo.

    • Will Bourne

      Or Twitter echoing word of mouth, perhaps? If a fraction of the population has T, but everyone has a mouth…a virtuous cycle of message reinforcement. Absolutely. But I think you’re making Gladwell’s point.

    • Will Bourne

      And I’m sorry I gotta laugh at equating T with Tom Paine. The first is a tool without thoughts, the other was a visionary and expert propagandist. Find me the Tom Paine ON Twitter and I’ll listen. Cheers

      • Bill Gary

        I’m in no way equating the quality of Twitter posts with Tom Paine–you have misunderstood my point. The written word was the high tech communication device of Paine’s time; Twitter is the corollary device for our time. Even colonists that couldn’t read were effected by the written word because others orally passed along the message. The same holds true for Twitter–those that have Twitter share the ideas and info they learn with those that don’t have it. Everyone in Tahrir Square may not have been using Twitter or Facebook but they were definitely talking with others that did.

        And you are quite right that Twitter also echoes word of mouth.

  6. Will Bourne

    Nice to see more careful thinking here, versus on Twitter yesterday at #GladwellLogic, but there is still a certain logical death spiral at work: “Because Twitter was there, Twitter made the difference.” I seems remarkable that the Twitter-boosters keep casting aside the actual penetration DATA, which strike me as at LEAST as powerful (ahem) as a couple of individual anecdotes (and as far as those are concerned I’ll take anon Masri’s over Ghonim’s any day).

    I bet Gladwell would be the first to say that the tool is significant, but of vanishing importance compared with the reason for revolution and the revolutionaries’ ability to close the deal and build something new. His point at the end of the CNN video, per John Lewis, about more “thought, patience, and sophistication” in laying the groundwork for revolution is crucial. Twitter may have helped draw people to Tahrir Square and elsewhere, just as signal beacons and Paul Revere on horseback did in the past, but as Gladwell says, communication really has never been the limiting factor. The problem is, What do you do once you’ve won? Let’s see Twitter solve that one.

  7. I think there’s two important points to consider:

    1) you can measure the traffic generated on twitter and facebook — but just because people are talking ABOUT something it doesn’t mean that the talk is actually inspiring action.

    2) let’s say some people are influenced by twitter and facebook posts and do take action … it would still need to be a significant, measurable increase of people taking actions in order to make the claim that social media has made a difference.

  8. Fred McClimans

    So perhaps Gladwell isn’t a social media expert, or even a heavy user. You and I, along with all others reading this post, may be much more experienced in online communications than he.

    That said, Gladwell’s point regarding the ability of revolution to take place without the Internet is very valid.

    At best, the Internet (and Social Media) is the enabler de jour. If not Social Media, then something else.

    The government in Egypt may have shut down the Internet to quell protests, just as they attempted to shut down most other forms of communication (which, by definition, are social in nature). Yet ironically, the resurrection of the Internet was likely due to the fact that the military in Egypt control approximately 30% of the Egyptian economy, which is heavily reliant on the Internet for communications (both internally and for import/export).

    What we do know is that the Internet was shut down, and restored, during the Egyptian protests. We also know that there was no significant decline in the protests (or anti-government unrest) during this period, although the economy may have fluttered.

    We also know that most governments under massive protest tend to shut down all forms of communications during such periods and that posts on most forms of Social Media can easily be made anonymously (seriously bringing into question the validity or motivation of the sources).

    Is it a certainty that Social Media (as we define it in the age of the Internet/Twitter/Facebook) played a *significant* role in the tipping point that occurred in Egypt? Based on my prior and current conversations with Egyptians in the US with families in Egypt, no. They had been suffering massive pains over an extended duration and were bolstered by events in other countries throughout the region.

    Is it even likely that Social Media (as defined by Twitter/Facebook) helped create or caused the tipping point in the revolution? Again, there is no evidence to suggest this was in fact the actual case.

    The revolution would have come about regardless of, or despite of, Social Media – due to the inability of the government to provide a stable work/employment environment for both the booming youth and the more family-oriented middle class (did the massive and spontaneous revolution in the Soviet Union require Twitter or Facebook?).

    While it is worth questioning Gladwell’s comments and discussions, you also have to be willing to admit that his points are worth considering. Social Media (in the purest sense) has been around since one group of people decided to communicate with a different group of people. Let’s not confine it to Twitter, Facebook or any other Internet-based form of communication. Despite the shutdown of the Internet, people in Egypt did communicate and they did protest.

    In my personal opinion, perhaps the greatest role that Social Media played (in the Twitter/Facebook sense) was in creating an unrealistic fear in the minds of the Egyptian rulers and an awareness of what what taking place in Egypt by other people (something that would have also, perhaps slower, taken place by the “then state-of-the-art” media of 10 years ago). And that, IMHO, does not constitute a crucial role in organizing or mobilizing the Egyptian unrest and civil revolt.

  9. How stupid are you people? Do you really really think that 80 or 90% of the population of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, [type country name here], or any other country is sitting around in coffee shops waiting for some goon on FaceBook to launch a revolution?

    Your “flash-mob launches a revolution” mentality is amazing… I’m with Gladwell… Ask yourself this question: “…how did we get to be so advanced in the [only] 20 years that we’ve had the internet..”

    I suppose we ought to be thanking Al Gore one more time for inventing the internet, thereby giving the world population at large the freedom to revolt…

    “…Social Media is not a tool of, by, and for the masses… it’s a tool used to sidetrack and entertain the masses and to preoccupy the consumer. Social Media is actually a diversion from the real issues in the world…”

    • I think that is it’s big call…being a diversion from “reality”. And, we get side-tracked in the most interesting ways sometimes. When we’re not defending our reputations and politics. Were someone to call me to “arms” about anything I would pull back into my being the cautious and critical thinking person I usually am and put the brakes on. I am a lot more liberal on facebook than I am known to be in difficult circumstances in person. Anything does not usually go with me and I say so. Different arenas.

  10. simplynonna

    I think that you can’t assume anything-like Occams Razor. Of course Social networking can expand evryones horizons. Of course it can B used as a tool for control. But control implies reviewing and inputting an enormous amount of data. How can u sort thru and filter it and how do you factor in variables as “unknown” people or events that might inspire actions. Trying to stop the floodgates of info in the proverbial dike only means you run out of thumbs. Besides, I always say wrong motives will allways bring wrong results..

  11. Wow, I’d be really interested to see his viewpoint on how Mark Zuckerberg is successful. Bill Joy & Bill Gates got props in being at the right time in his book, Outliers.

    I’d be very interested if he’ll downplay social media in light of Zuck’s success… is he going to state social media is a just a “fad”?

  12. Reese Mitchell

    Another point I’d like to touch on is the belief that anyone is a “Social Media Expert”. I believe if we really had this type of person they would have told us about MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, but no one did. The best label you can put on yourself would be an “educated” social media commentator or educator.

  13. Reese Mitchell

    He misses the main point of social media like twitter. It DOES offer a way of communicating not accessible before. It is the very way twitter works. You spread your thoughts to others through followers who then pass it on and on… His view that it also give dictators the ability to find their opposition is true, but they have already gotten the word out to many unlike a phone call or a sms message can.
    This is the same mind set that said the Beatles didn’t change music or Elvis did change it either. I’m not sure why people like this feel so strongly except it maybe they are afraid of something new, new ways to communicate or just the simple fact that things are changing and they don’t like change.
    What ever it is that makes people like Malcolm Gladwell continue to argue there point against mounting evidence to the contrary is quite interesting.
    All I can say to people like this is just sit down turn on your 8 track get up and change the channel on your TV and relax. No one is gonna change the world you have amassed in your home, you are safe there.

  14. anon masri

    I respect that you are all trying to figure out how social media can help us educate and empower the people.

    My personal experience proved to me that Mr. Gladwell was more correct than he knows. I believe that social media will have a negative effect on empowering the people going forward.

    I am a New Yorker. Was born in Egypt and love it so when I heard about the revolution I bought the first ticket I could get. I was there for the pivotal day of the revolution Feb 2nd. The western media calls it the “battle of the camel” That is a pitiful, informative and racist label.

    Feb 2nd was the day the defenders of Tahrir Sq held back the Bultagahyah and saved the revolution. Over 100 Egyptian Freedom fighters died that day alone in Tahrir sq yet no one talks about it. All we hear is rev 2.0. camels and babies named Facebook. I am disgusted by that.

    We have all seen the pictures of Egyptians wearing make shift helmets and armor. That was to keep us alive from the hail storm of rocks raining down on us from Mubarak’s bultahgayah. Bultahgayah means paid thugs. Mubarak sent a horde of released prisoners under the command of his plain clothes police. The thugs had rocks and moltovs, the police had machetes and later we found out guns. The horses and camels were just a side show early on. The real fight went into the early morning.

    We fought them back for hours. There were thousands of them and only about a thousand of us and by the early morning our numbers were very thin. several hundred were wounded and over a hundred killed.

    Everyone there was fighting. I saw a guy on a wheel chair throwing rocks. The women helped tremendously as they played the part of messengers. They saw when the bultahgayah would try and surprise us by breaking through a thinly guarded street and yelled to signal us. We would all run to back them up and keep the bultahgayah from breaking into the square.

    We made barricades from trash, broke off the street to make rocks, carried them to the front lines and battled all night like that. it got so desperate that everyone started screaming about jihad. We thought were were going to die, They were wearing us down and if we didn’t get help they would take the sq, kill us and clean up the mess before morning. The end of the revolution.

    Thankfully we got a big break and were saved and you’ll never guess by who. Sure as hell was NOT internet related.

    Wael Ghonim is about as qualified to speak about the revolution as an Egyptian Expat living abroad, which is what he was and still is. He posted to his FB page from Dubai and the only reason we speak of him now is because he got arrested while hailing a cab in Cairo. His activity with the revolution was purely on Facebook and blindfolded in a jail cell. Naturally all he knows is the internet. Take what he says with a grain of salt. There is a reason the speakers kicked him off stage in Tahrir. Many paid for their lives to save the revolution and many paid with their lives to start it, yet he keeps talking about facebook and 2.0 bs.

    The internet as it is now doesn’t help people mobilize, it prevents them from mobilizing. This revolution went into high gear when the internet was taken down. It forced people to get off the pc and hit the streets. Imagine that!

    The psychology of the internet and social media will only hold back any true democratic movement now. Gladwell was right. I’ve got the scars to prove it.

    All social media hipsters who want to argue this point, put the keyboard down, go walk outside and get into a fight. Then come back and tell me how much your tweets and status updates helped.

    • I don’t think you can say that THESE protesters were more important than THESE protesters. Each person played a role that made the whole. Some people on the Internet organized where and when to protest. Others brought supplies. Others like anon masri, protected Tahrir Square from thugs. EACH protester is important. You look at things from a personal perspective and you only see a portion of the whole.

      • Anonmasri

        This attitude is revolting and a symptom o the weakness that has affected us. U think a bunch o dudes on lone are as important as dudes who r on the front lines and on the streets giving supplies and support ? So dees havin a virtual protest in. World of warcrAft to bring attention to the Tahrir protectors in the massive wow world are as important as the protectors on the street?

        Do you see why I saw social media is now having a negative effect on revolution ?
        The powers that be have actually managed to convict us that we can change the world sittig at our desks. Pitiful

        Cancel your facebook. That is step on to bustig out of the matrix. I did when I got back from cairo.

  15. Social media is a game changer for potential revolutions because of anonymity and the ability to see that others share your viewpoint. In oppressive governments; people are afraid to speak with neighbors, or even friends, about how they dislike the government. They don’t know who’s listening or who’s a secret government informant.

    When no one talks, you don’t know how many people are just like you. You might think you’re in the minority, so you keep your mouth shut and don’t ever consider staging a protest.

    China, North Korea, Burma, and other oppressive regimes certainly disagree with Gladwell. They know social media is a big deal, which is why they’re mortified by it.

    • jackparsons

      I’m a perverse man, but for some reason I find the comment on a tech blog about anonymity being one of the STRENGTHS of social media to be amusing. Most of them are wringing their hands about it.

      But seriously, anyone living under the dominion of an oppressive regime that opens up a twitter account better damn well expect that the government is reading it and knows who he is. I live in a democracy and I take it for granted.

  16. Zack Gayle

    Hey Matthew, if this is such a big deal and you want to defend your and GigaOm’s belief that social networks (particularly those located in Silicon Valley, which GigaOm often implies is the center of the world even though Copernius taught us otherwise, such as the cited Facebook and Twitter, then why can’t you even chalk up anecdotal evidence let alone actual data? For example, why don’t you interview people in Tunisia or Egypt who were on the ground involved in organizing the protests and riots and get their direct feedback? Your lack of even a singular anecdotal interview comes across as “lazy journalism”. Seriously how hard could it be for you to track down someone in Egypt (give them an alias to protect their identity if need be)? 60 Minutes could clearly trump GigaOm when it comes to investigative journalism. Until you can strongly counter argue Gladwell, Gladwell’s hypothesis prevails and GigaOm’s “article” here looks like b.s. (oh yeah, instead of interviewing a real activist in the Middle East region who can provide a testimonial for the Twitter or Facebook use case (Wael Ghonim doesn’t count because he works for Google and if you read Eric Schmidt’s and Jared Cohen’s Foreign Affairs article last year on the “digital disruption” it mentioned the fall of Egypt so Google and its Silicon Valley brethren would like nothing more than to be proved right with its prediction on Egypt), instead GigaOm has interviews recently of Steve Blank who cackles about the valuations of Twitter and Facebook in preparation for their supposed forthcoming IPOs). Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, has a chapter in his book about confirmation bias – think carefully about putting too much stock in Google’s Wael Ghonim and the Foreign Affairs article by Schmidt and Cohen.

    • The fact that you’re willing to discount Wael Ghonim’s comments simply because he works at Google shows that you have no real interest in getting actual testimony from those involved, let alone paying attention to it when it appears. Thanks for the comment anyway though.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

      • jackparsons

        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.

  19. 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.

  20. “…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.

  21. 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?

  22. 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.