Malcolm Gladwell Crushes the Social Network Revolution

In a thoughtful article published in the October 4, 2010 issue of The New Yorker magazine, SuperGenius author Malcolm Gladwell posits the argument the next human revolution will not be via social networks like Twitter and Facebook because those modern day feebles rely on “weak-tie” agreements instead of the in-person, militaristic “strong-tie” actions of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s.

Here’s an excerpt from Galdwell’s argument:

Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.

Of course, Gladwell is correct on all points — be sure to read his entire article to reach the depths of his argument.  It’s easy to have 5,000 weak-tie friends on Facebook and not really know more than 10 of them in person, while having one, good, single strong-tie “in-person” friend can test a lifetime of patience and intertwining ties that bind you together forever.

I’ve always been fascinated by the people on Twitter who have 25,000 followers and they’re following 25,000 people.  We all know nobody is reading Tweets from 25,000 people a day and, in reverse, nobody is reading what you broadcast to 25,000 people.  So the point becomes:  So What?  Everybody’s Tweeting, Nobody’s reading.  That’s the definition of a modern, circular, death with no end except to begin again. We all assume everyone is reading every tidbit we share, but they aren’t — and yet they assume the same about us, and that we cannot live without their every savory update morsel, but we can; and so the fakery and the terribleness of Social Networking is known and felt but never confessed.  We all just keep our heads down and keep clicking and pretending we are living memeingful lives while we search for a human reality that never was and never can be.

Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone were, of course, offended by Gladwell’s righteous assault on Social Networking:

At the same time, however, Williams and cofounder Biz Stone, Twitter’s creative director, both took issue with a recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell that posited “the revolution will not be tweeted.”

Stone agreed that in order to effect real, meaningful social change, “you need strong ties, such as real friends in the real world, and a real hierarchical, military-like structure … to really get things done.”

But he added that with a real-time exchange of information like Twitter, it would be “absurd to argue that those are not effective and helpful and complementary, to disseminating information.”

We can only create change through cohesive precision of thought and by then acting together in moral unison — but we must never let the network rule us.  Mob Rule is no way to govern a nation, let a lone a movement to correct errors of the human spirit.  It is easy to click a “Like” button to support the abolition of world hunger and feel as if you’re doing your part to save the world — but how many of us would show up in person, offering our aching backs and our sweaty hands to help build a bridge across a canal in a land that is not our own so the food truck can actually reach the starving people?

Social Networking is a meaningless fraud and an assumption of real being that has no honest purchase or moral consumption in the long scope of who we are and what we hope to become.  The Twitter Revolution is the King Without Clothes — and the joke is always on us if we still think real change can happen through a computer and not because of the direct movement of our bodies behaving in unison at a specific place and time against an immovable force that dares our reckoning.