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Malcolm Gladwell: Social Media Still Not a Big Deal

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. dan_stanley

    i think it is a case to case basis depending on who is using the social media tool. for those countries who have easy access to the internet then i believe social networking sites such as mysocialworld toolbar can have a great effect.

  2. A lof of these comments have addressed what happened in Egypt etc, but not many have addressed the impact that social media had on the perception of the revolution in other countries. The mere existence of social networks, or even just the ‘internet’ and its subsequent censoring or disconnection was a powerful indicator to me, and I’m sure to others, that the regimes in question were panicking. So, the ability for sure, a small, elite portion of the population to communicate easily with the rest of the world, and then to lose that ability was huge in a lot of people’s perception of what was going on there. If more people think of the internet and communication as a basic human right, the contravening of those rights is very significant, both for those who’s rights are effected and for those who witness and observe. If nothing else, that sort of draconian measure by any government sparks general disgust, disquiet and outrage. Without social media, the sudden absence of which was pronounced, this wouldn’t be the case, or at least not as globally so. To prove this point, imagine if your govt. suddenly suspended access to social media or the internet in general. How would you react? I know I’d be immediately terrified and apprehensive and I’m sure revolutionary thoughts would be in the offing and I’m a mild mannered Canadian. In fact, if our govt. made such a move they’d be constitutionally removed (via election) within weeks, rather than months, and the party responsible would probably not make a comeback for years if ever.

    Furthermore, the idea that these revolutions played out strictly within the confines of the countries who’s govts. fell is a total fallacy at this point, especially in light of what is happening now in Libya. To suggest that social media hasn’t played a global role in the experience of revolutions (witness Iran, Egypt, or really any major event) is ludicrous. Twitter, FB, YouTube (particularly), email etc are all key disseminators of information with a global reach which obviously has impact on policy making. To doubt that, you’d have to buy the assumption that governments are not effected by the media that sways the masses, a notion that was antiquated at the beginning of the 20th century. Anecdotal sure, but I certainly doubt that the intervention of Nato in Libya would have proceeded without heavy media saturation of the revolution there in the West. In real terms as well, revolutions often succeed or fail based on the outside recognition and support for their legitimacy. Obviously that’s not the whole story but certainly an important part of it. Imagine, what would have happened if the UK and France had recognized the legitimacy of the Confederacy during the American Civil War? What has happened now that the Libyan rebell council has been recognized by some as the legitimate representatives of that country?

    Finally, as to the historic arguments about tool A and revolution B. Of course there have been revolutions in the past without certain technologies present, but that doesn’t invalidate the power of those technologies when present. To whit, I’d challenge anyone to present many examples of successful rebellions (ie conflicts without external intervention) before the advent of widespread literacy or printing presses. The notion that revolutions are often successful isn’t actually supported by the historical record. Nor is it true that they were even particularly common before lets say the Enlightenment (at least as far as the West is concerned). As far as I’m aware no group ever successfully rebelled against the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the British or the French until the ‘modern’ era to the extent that the ruling govt. was abolished or replaced. Even the American revolution didn’t over-throw the existing British government. The empire they rebelled against lasted for approx. 200 more years and was the dominant world power for at least half that span.

    With such a historical record, I think its clear that certain technologies have a transformative power in world conflict and revolutions. I’m not saying social media is one for sure, but to discount its power in the context of the media landscape that we inhabit is foolish.

  3. Social media is a communication channel that can be used both with positive and negative intentions. A world without or with social media might not be a critical factor for the dynamic and existence of revolutions. However, in a world with social media, there is no way to do it without it! It is a channel to spread the message such as TV, phone etc.

    • Interesting story but I think Gladwell is making an argument for the sake of it. As the author of the post points out, he not really saying much about revolutions other than the fact they have existed before twitter. The real question is what difference these channels make. I think the jury is still out there but I am pretty sure most dictators see the internet as a necessary evil and not something like a great ‘social control’ opportunity.