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Malcolm Gladwell is right about Egypt and Twitter, and here’s why that’s upsetting to some folks

If Malcolm Gladwell lacks nuance in his dismissal of the contributions of Twitter, Facebook and other new social media to deep social change, that is fully forgivable.  The title of the article that kicked off the controversy, Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted, is a lot pithier than the perhaps more accurate, “Sure, the Revolution may very well be Tweeted, and it may even benefit to an extent from this particular new communication form, but Twitter is not a replacement for the strong social ties that come from face-to-face human interaction.”  There can be good reason and value in kicking off a conversation with a slightly oversimplified assertion – because it is indeed more likely to incite a reaction and actually kick off a conversation.

I agreed with Gladwell then, and I agree with him again in his latest post, Does Egypt Need Twitter?, which applies his original assertion to the current situation in Egypt:

Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. 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. 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.

Those critiquing Gladwell get it wrong, IMHO.  Take Ari Melber’s blog at The Nation.  First, Melber summarizes Gladwell’s position as “an apparent response to the idea that digitally networked activists are exceling in Egypt.”  But really Gladwell does not dispute that “digitally networked activists are excelling,” but rather that they are excelling primarily because they are digitally networked.  Melber continues:

No one is arguing that this is the first protest in world history. Very few people think the Internet is an essential prerequisite to revolution. Instead, they’re exploring whether the web and networked communications open up new and effective ways for citizens to converse and organize each other in repressive societies. (Access to mobile phones and text-messaging, for example, may have helped young people organize in Egypt and Tunisia in a different way than landlines or websites.) We can engage these issues without taking anything away from the French Revolution.

I concede something to Melber and others: it is interesting to explore how specific communications forms and tools might help progressive change agents (and revolutionaries, in the case of Egypt) in specific ways. I’m certainly interested in doing that in campaigns I work on.  Being up on the latest technology is important.

But Gladwell’s point is one of emphasis.  What are we emphasizing as the means to strong collective action?  The new media technique of the day?  Or building relationships, strong social ties, and strong social blocs that share meanings and commitment?

Melber says, “Gladwell assumes that asking ‘why’ people ‘were driven’ to these protests is somehow in competition with asking how they achieved such effective protests.”  I think this a false asessment of Gladwell.  He is clearly interested in the how, but he’s looking deeper than what is most obvious and most visible in his exploration of the how.  From outside of Egypt, it is difficult to see which group identities, social infrastructure, and organizations are playing what roles in encouraging and emboldening such a strong collective mobilization.  But it’s really easy to read tweets.  It’s easy to latch onto the mechanisms that are within our experience.  As the saying goes, if the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Today, if you spend all of your time online, you might be inclined to overvalue its worth.  You might be more likely to read an article that discusses how to improve your Twitter presence than an article that explores how to talk to your family about a difficult political issue.  Social media is low-hanging fruit.  Any savvy young person can learn to text message, tweet, and update their status – and that’s all fine.  But we need organizers who can pull the people around them into higher-risk action.

Social media is not a savior or a silver bullet solution.  Strong social ties, which do not come through social media, are still the core motivator of high-risk action.  Building such ties is a lot messier-and offers less instant gratification-than sharing the latest great article you read with online friends who already think like you.  That’s why Gladwell’s analysis can be upsetting, and that’s why we need to hear it.

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