That million-strong, highly engaged, hanging-on-your-every-word social community you’ve spent two years developing on Twitter and Facebook? It’s never going to amount to much, says best-selling author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell.
This from a man who hasn’t graced us with a single tweet in almost a year. But hey – he knows. Gladwell uses the American civil rights movement as an example of where social media and the internet wouldn’t have made a lick of difference to events in the ‘real world’.
“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.”
This latter sentence is quite clearly nonsense – one thing social communities excel at is grouped strategy, from very simple things like flashmobs to organised protests and marches – but even if social media alone couldn’t have been the catalyst for America’s social change in the 1960s, surely it would have helped move things along? If only to raise mass-awareness in a very immediate way.
The issue in the 1960s is less about what social media could or could not have done for the American civil rights movement, and more about whether those involved would even have had access to these tools. That is, after all, what the movement was all about. But the absence of access isn’t social media’s fault, and it’s extremely ignorant to assume that the ‘white power structure’ had the strength and universal agreement to steamroll any digital uprising. As history has shown us, they failed to do this in the offline world. I can’t see why the online should be any different.
I like Gladwell’s books, but this piece is his usual mix of carefully-selected examples and hyperbole. He points to a story in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody about the recovery of a lost mobile phone as an example of where organised social pressure can make a difference, albeit in trivial, everyday things that ultimately do not matter.
When Evan e-mailed the teenager, Sasha, asking for the phone back, she replied that his “white ass” didn’t deserve to have it back. Miffed, he set up a Web page with her picture and a description of what had happened. He forwarded the link to his friends, and they forwarded it to their friends. Someone found the MySpace page of Sasha’s boyfriend, and a link to it found its way onto the site. Someone found her address online and took a video of her home while driving by; Evan posted the video on the site. The story was picked up by the news filter Digg. Evan was now up to ten e-mails a minute. He created a bulletin board for his readers to share their stories, but it crashed under the weight of responses. Evan and Ivanna went to the police, but the police filed the report under “lost,” rather than “stolen,” which essentially closed the case. “By this point millions of readers were watching,” Shirky writes, “and dozens of mainstream news outlets had covered the story.” Bowing to the pressure, the N.Y.P.D. reclassified the item as “stolen.” Sasha was arrested, and Evan got his friend’s Sidekick back.
Gladwell argues that these ‘weak-tie’ connections that all of us have on Twitter and Facebook are fine for things like lost phones, but that they quickly fall apart – or, at least, almost always under-deliver – when the chips are really down.
(Tim Adams has a nice counter-piece in The Guardian. It’s worth reading for Shirky’s response to Gladwell’s typically snooty criticisms of him.)
When I read Gladwell talking about social media it reminds me very much of when Seth Godin talks about Twitter – it sounds a little like your grandpa talking about “modern music”, trying to fit in and doing his best to dazzle us with his intimate knowledge of the Stones and Motown, but ultimately sounding like (and admitting) that he doesn’t listen to modern music at all. He has simply decided he doesn’t like, or need it. There’s no time for it in his life. But hey – he saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965, and that’s all that really matters.
Malcolm himself has stated that he doesn’t spend a lot of time on the internet. Godin has admitted that he doesn’t have time for social media.
“I don’t use Twitter. It’s not really me. I also don’t actively use FaceBook, and I’m not adding any friends, though I still have an account for the day when I no doubt will.”
(Also, I hate the way he dismisses Robert Scoble in that piece. I’m not sure he meant it exactly that way, but it reads a little like how the boss of a company in the 60s might talk about one of the girls in the typing pool. I’m a huge fan of Godin’s, but this sort of stuff just makes me cringe.)
So if they don’t even use social media, why do both of them then persist on talking about it, and worse, feeling like they are in a position to provide us with insight and advice? That opting into social isolation in an increasingly digital world makes them think they can tell us what does and does not work inside that world? It’s like giving beat-the-game tips to Neo in The Matrix when your only reference point is a Bill & Ted double-header.
Those that can’t do, teach. Those that won’t do should just shut the hell up about it.
I agree with Malcom that it’s both naÃ¯ve and a little risky to assume that all of your friends on Twitter and Facebook are ‘real’ friends – that is, genuine, bonafide relationships with people you like and trust. But that doesn’t mean that none of them are, and it doesn’t mean that just a handful of these people can’t kick-start and nurture huge social change, both for individuals (i.e., you) and communities.
Yes, it is far too easy to add your name to a meaningless protest list on Facebook and feel like you’re doing your part, but thankfully not everybody feels that way. At the very least, seeing 10 million names united against something at least gives one pause, and often triggers just enough momentum to provide those who are in a position to make a difference with the incentive to act.
Here’s the real irony of Gladwell’s piece – all change starts small. A single tweet can take us anywhere, both extraordinary and ridiculous. And as we all continue to refine and improve our online social communities, this shift in power away from a privileged few to an increasingly organised collective that can be called at a moment’s notice presents a real threat to the status quo.
Because the immediacy of social media doesn’t equate to immediate change isn’t an argument against it – that’s simply a reality of the human race. Change, real change, takes time. Yes, physical acts are probably always going to be the most powerful way to make a statement, but that statement carries a heck of a lot more weight when brought to the direct attention of hundreds of millions of people with one click of a button.
I suspect that theÂ fear of change is perhaps the driving force behind Gladwell’s rant. Does the new world have a place for his old ways? You’re only 47, Malcolm, so there’s still plenty of time for a little evolution. Just don’t expect to see much of a change overnight.
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