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.

9 comments

  • Just recently, I thought about how social media is as an agent for social change. I too wondered how a “Like” button could initiate a movement or build a bridge. I eventually supported the idea of social media creating social change. After reading your article, I’m not entirely sure. Gladwell and you make a valid point about how necessary it is for our physical and not simply our virtual selves to be involved in a revolution. During King’s time, though “ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church,” can we still get our word across in the same way? It cannot be denied that society is much more reclusive today and that we prefer the comfort of our computers rather than one-on-one interactions. In a society so accustomed to online information, is it wise to criticize the most popular source of news these days? It may not lead to action directly but you have to agree that it does create awareness. Awareness that may just lead to action.

    • Thank you for your interesting comment, Chandrika, and welcome to Carceral Nation!

      The problem we have today is that most people don’t want to be bothered. They’re basically satisfied and don’t want anything to rock their mainstream boat. So, as Gladwell correctly argues, the “strong-tie” connection is what’s important. I become friends with you — in person, not virtually — and we learn to trust each other. I then ask you to help me build a bridge this weekend for three hours to feed a hungry people. You agree. You turn to your strong-tie network and bring another friend or two to help us build that bridge, and that’s how a bridge gets built and how a real human social movement gathers steam. Social Networking lives and dies in the ether — but there’s no direct result of any clicked or re-Tweeted action other than the action it took to create that faux sense of “movement” in space and time.

      You’re right that the Churches are probably not as viable a means of organization as they were from 1955-1968 in America — so we have to look elsewhere for shared, vested, interests in a cathedral — and I’d point you to the American football stadium on a Sunday afternoon, or an American ballpark during the Summer. 50,000-80,000 people gather in those stone communions and taking the next step — a call to physical, in unison, action that crosses the boundaries of sport — seems to be a possible, if not logical, next step in our shared evolution of thought and action together based on shared values and common interests.

      The reclusivity you mention is only reactionary and temporary. If a strong-tie asks another strong-tie for action, it will happen. Weak-tie to weak-tie — the Social Network meme — only finds “success” in the amount of noise it creates instead of the actual movement it can measure.

      I don’t think Awareness leads to action. I think awareness leads to passivity because “being aware” suggests an action that has already occurred — but it hasn’t really, except in the mind of the aware one. We’re all aware all the time today thanks to endless online news sources, but few of us made a radical difference in the lives we lead in the midst of that noise. I publish 13 blogs, but I wouldn’t trust a word I write or say. I’m just adding to the possibility of action because I know, from direct experience, that people won’t move unless they’re pushed and people can only be pushed by those they are dedicated to in the stakes of a real and unconditional life. I do trust those prescient people who read my articles and comment on them — because that shows the result of an identifiable touching that might just translate into real strong-tie results on their side of the ethereal dyad.

  • David,

    Let us not forget what happened when the University of Texas shooter popped onto campus recently. Real human bodies relocated themselves based on getting information from weak-tie twitter — and who can say how many lives were saved as a result? Twitter has a place out here somewhere.

    • Gordon —

      You need to read the Gladwell article. He isn’t talking about emergency alerts as an example of “weak-tie” and “strong-tie” — he’s talking about everlasting action — revolutions like the Civil Rights Movement — that happened because of “strong-ties” into a community and not “weak-ties” like Social Networking where no one can be held responsible and everyone is invisible. He specifically argues that the Civil Rights Movement could never would happen today if it were planned and executed through Facebook or Twitter because of the very brittleness and distancing of the technology.

      As well, The University of Texas shooter incident was officially handled through the UT emergency webpage and SMS messages sent to student, faculty and staff cellphones. The “Twitter Effect” wasn’t that pronounced, and no university would rely on an unreliable, free, service, like Twitter to broadcast life-threatening, emergency updates.

      http://www.utexas.edu/emergency/

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