In my October 19, 2010 article — Malcolm Gladwell Crushes the Social Network Revolution — I argued this:
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.
Malcolm Gladwell was right then, as he is now. The Revolution in Egypt will be won with bloody, civilian, hands on tanks and not pristine fingers pecking on cellphones.
Writing a new article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell explained yesterday how what’s happening right now in Egypt supports his original contention that there can never be such a thing as a “Twitter Revolution” for social change:
But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice.
Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones takes Gladwell’s argument a prescient step forward and puts Twitter in its proper niche of conceit:
I don’t say this very often, or at all, but Malcolm Gladwell is totally on the money today. Twitter bears about as much responsibility for the Egyptian uprising as George Soros, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Yet in their determination to find a story line—an overarching narrative—to the Mideast’s tumult, too many journalists and pedants are overstating the role of the 140-Character Canon in shaping human events. In doing so, they sound as navel-gazingly and lazily conspiratorial as a horde of Glenn Beck evangelists. Anyone who lived through 1989 or the civil rights era or 1967 or 1956 knows that media technology is not a motive force for civil disobedience. Arguing otherwise is not just silly; it’s a distraction from the real human forces at play here.
It’s sort of sad to see how hard Google and Twitter are trying to paste their relevancy — as a dynamic, world-changing communication memers-of-memes — over the real life bloodshed in Egypt:
Like many people we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we could do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service—the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.
We worked with a small team of engineers from Twitter, Google and SayNow, a company we acquired last week, to make this idea a reality. It’s already live and anyone can tweet by simply leaving a voicemail on one of these international phone numbers (+16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855) and the service will instantly tweet the message using the hashtag #egypt. No Internet connection is required. People can listen to the messages by dialing the same phone numbers or going to twitter.com/speak2tweet.
I’m sorry to tell Google and Twitter that revolution in Egypt won’t happen in Voice Mail translated Tweets, either.
Social Revolutions are about angry people in the streets with their feet on the dirt and their hands grasping at the air above them. To cling to the quaint notion that social change happens in the bits of a Facebook update or the bytes of a Tweet is to insult the very damaging, and irrevocable, way human lives are sacrificed in the wager against repression and in the innate fight for equality and freedom.
I honestly think — and I will mention this in my article — that the twitter helped not so much the Egyptians directly as it did keep the rest of the world aware of what was happening there — not from a news organization perspective (as there were none permitted) but from the soul of the people.
That’s an interesting point, Gordon, but we really don’t know the veracity of what is being Tweeted — or even the true identities of many of the Tweeters.
Seems a bit like MetaCritic — one or two or three or four may be inaccurate, but you can get an overall feel of what is happening if you look at a few hundred tweets in a time span, I imagine.
You’re right Twitter is good for anecdotal reports from the field — but it still won’t be the means of social revolution.
I’m reading a lot of Gladwell hate everywhere about this. Can’t a guy risk an opinion without getting shouted down by the geeks?
That’s a fair point, Anne. The anti-Malcolm forces want him to shut up, but they expect to be listened to and accepted without warrant.