On Picking People and Pulses Over Particles in the Ether

I love the ongoing flaying of Malcolm Gladwell in the technical media — the majority of writers just can’t abide the thought that Gladwell is right that revolutions begin and end with people and pulses and not particles of thought whooshing in the social ether.

How can it be that Devin Coldewey gets it so eternally right in his TechCrunch article:

Twitter and Facebook are indeed useful tools, but they are not tools of revolution — at least, no more than Paul Revere’s horse was. People are the tools of revolution, whether their dissent is spread by whisper, by letter, by Facebook, or by some means we haven’t yet imagined. What we, and the Egyptians, should justly be proud of, is not just those qualities which set Egypt’s revolution apart from the last hundred, but those which are fundamental to all of them.

Malcom Gladwell has become the whipping boy of the internet for having suggested however long ago it was that the social web is something that breeds weak connections and requires only a minimum of participation. He was right then, and he’s right now; he wrote a short post the other day defying the gloating masses (sensibly, but haughtily), and concluded with something commentators of the Egyptian revolution should take to heart: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

While two days later, Jon Evans, also writing in TechCrunch, gets it so wholly wrong:

Do you rise up to fight the government? Of course you don’t. Your rage is drowned out by fear and despair, a fatalistic sense that nothing can be done, that this is just how things are and ever will be, and whoever rises or even speaks against it is doomed. Take Khaled Said, an honest man beaten to death by police he refused to bribe. Egyptians are outraged, but what can they do? Nothing. A Facebook page is created in his memory. Malcolm Gladwell can tell you how irrelevant and inconsequential an act that is.

…Six months later, that Facebook page has accumulated more than half a million followers, and has become an online gathering place for activists. After Tunisia erupts, an online group called the April 6 Movement reaches out to one of that page’s administrators, Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Google executive, to ask for help organizing a day of protest. Another administrator asks the page’s followers what they should do. Ideas and plans erupt and snowball. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Evans actually unwittingly makes Gladwell’s point with his example of the Facebook fan page, where people can invisibly “join” the revolution by clicking a “Like” button wherever they live in the world — facing zero threat and no danger in that pseudo-activist “event” — and the fact that Evans doesn’t quantify the Facebook page’s actual effectiveness in the street and along the public square against people who actually showed up to protest in person, emphasizes the bitter ethereality of the transitory dispositions of a viral faith against a virtual culture of notions and not knowing.

This “Revolutionary Wanting” via social networks reminds me of the 1935 play — Waiting for Lefty — written by Clifford Odets, and summarily reviewed by Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times:

The dynamics of the program are the property of Mr. Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. His saga, based on the New York taxi strike of last year, is clearly one of the most thorough, trenchant jobs in the school of revolutionary drama. It argues the case for a strike against labor racketeering and the capitalist state by using the theatre auditorium as the hall where the taxi union is meeting. In four or five subordinate scenes, played with a few bare props in corners of the stage, the personal problems of several representative insurgents are drawn sharply.

Odets actually expected, and wanted, his nightly audiences — a “social network” at the time — to dynamically rise from their theatre seats as one, and leave the auditorium and “revolt” in the street in a sympathetic harmonic with the taxi drivers; thus, re-staging the labor strike in repetitive, mini-reenactments, in the New York City Streets to create an ongoing, if nascent, social revolution against a repressive authority.  It didn’t work in 1935 New York, and it still doesn’t work in 2011 Egypt.

6 comments

  • I wonder how many of the people at the gatherings were aware of them because of the facebook pages?

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    • Gordon —

      That’s precisely what we’d need to know — if you’re going to invoke the influential power of “Liking” a Facebook page with social revolution — and then you fail to quantifiably link that liking, by nothing more than wishing, to feet on the ground in the public square — you’re actually proving Gladwell right.

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  • The Waiting for Lefty stuff is pretty interesting. I’ll have to find it and read it again. How again is a play like Facebook and such?

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    • Hi Anne —

      Just because you buy a ticket to see a show in 1935 and you sit in a dark theatre with a bunch of other people who also paid to see the show doesn’t mean you’re all going to stand up and leave the theatre together and revolt in the streets just because the play you’re watching says you need to do that. You “voted” for the revolution by buying a ticket, but no revolution can ever happen indirectly or by osmosis. Revolution demands direct time and personal investment and feet on the ground in real time.

      Today, clicking a “Like” button, or sending a supportive Tweet, is the same thing as buying a 1935 theatre ticket — except you don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home to sit amidst your social network in real time — and virtually supporting something without any risk at all to the self isn’t the same as actually going into the streets and doing the real life, dangerous, dirty work of fomenting regime change.

      That’s Gladwell’s original point, and it has been purposefully misshapen by technocrats in the online debates. Gladwell isn’t arguing about communication or fuel or tools or means. He’s talking about people in the streets, actively working to change their station with direct intent.

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