All posts tagged: Malcolm Gladwell

Limits of social media in revolutionary processes (Malcolm Gladwell was right!)

Last October Malcolm Gladwell kicked a hornet nest of social media enthusiasts, arguing that social media helped facilitate weak social ties, which are good for some things but not others. Protracted social struggle against the privileged and powerful tends to come with heavy costs, sometimes including prison, physical pain, and even death. Strong social ties are absolutely necessary for sustaining the level of commitment such struggles require, and social media doesn’t do much for cultivating such ties, Gladwell argued.

Gladwell came off as almost entirely dismissive of the value of social media, and that upset people. If he was trying to provoke a dialogue, he clearly succeeded.

Over all, I agree with Gladwell’s emphasis and I argued at the time that people who love social media may be inclined to overstate its real-change value:


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 &#151 and that’s all fine.  But we need organizers who can pull the people around them into higher-risk action.

An article by Noam Cohen in Sunday’s NY Times adds dimension to this debate on the social change value of social media:

THE mass media, including interactive social-networking tools, make you passive, can sap your initiative, leave you content to watch the spectacle of life from your couch or smartphone.

Apparently even during a revolution.

Cohen is reporting on a new thesis titled “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest”, by Yale political science graduate student Navid Hassanpour.

Hassanpour suggests close to the opposite of what many have taken for granted about the role of social media in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak; that the disruption of the regular functioning of social media may have contributed to revolutionary organizing more than its utility. Then-President Mubarak’s decision to shutdown Internet and cellphone service may have shifted cognitive and social processes in favor of revolutionary change. From the NY Times article:

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.

The Political Identity Paradox | Evolutionary logic of collective action pt.III

Why do grassroots political organizations sometimes implode right at the peak of their success?  This post examines the double-edged sword of highly cohesive political group identities and explores how to build vibrant campaigns while avoiding going (too) crazy…

natural born people pleasers

Imagine yourself a gazelle in a herd of gazelles.  Aw snap, here comes a hungry lion out of nowhere – and that lion is fast!  Is this the moment you want to be caught on the peripheral edges of the herd?  Ok, now imagine yourself a lone wolf trying to catch your next meal.  It’s freezing out and you’re not having much luck.  You’re just sitting there, hungry and tired and cold, wondering what it was you said that got you kicked out of the pack.

What do we know about prehistoric life in human groups? While there’s a lot of mystery and conjecture, we do know that life was, indeed, in groups.  We’re not gazelles or wolves, but, like gazelles and wolves, we like groups. We are highly social creatures.  As evolutionist David Sloan Wilson suggests, “…our ancestors participated in family groups, gathering groups, hunting groups, raiding groups, and so on. Almost everything was done in a social context; to be alone was to be in grave danger.” [2004: The New Fable of Bees.  my emphasis]

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá also hit on this in their book Sex at Dawn: “If you ever doubt that human beings are, beyond everything, social animals, consider that short of outright execution or physical torture, the worst punishment in any society’s arsenal has always been exile.”

If the thought of being abandoned by the group that you identify with troubles you, congratulations; that’s probably a hard-wired adapted way to feel.  Your cave-person ancestors probably survived in part because they liked, and were liked by, the group.  Those who wandered off alone too far, as well as those who pissed everyone off until they got 86’ed, probably didn’t fare quite as well evolutionarily.

It makes evolutionary sense that we would want to move toward the center of the group, because those who developed this tendency would have a leg up on those who didn’t.  This kind of selection may have helped our predecessors to evolve into a more social, more cooperative, kinder, gentler species.

Where does that leave us now?  It likely equips us with a predisposition to try to get on the good side of the groups we’re part of.  We want to feel safe in the center of the group, not threatened on the margins.

So, in some senses we’re a species of natural born people pleasers.  (As long as those people are within our group – see War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection.)  

This helps explain our capacity for cooperation.  In Part I of this series I argued that, under the right conditions, human beings have the capacity for behavior that serves the group, even at a cost to the individual.  One “right condition” or prerequisite is a feeling of belonging within a mostly cooperative group.  If an individual feels integrated within a group and feels like the group has her back – that she will benefit by casting her individual lot with the group – then she is more likely to display group-oriented behavior.

The degree to which a person identifies with the group will affect how much he is willing to give to the group. In other words, level of commitment to a group depends on the level of one’s investment and identity with that group. For example, an “online member” of an internet-based progressive organization may identify enough with “the group” to open every tenth email and occasionally call her member of Congress when asked; while a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) may identify strongly enough with “the group” to endure beatings, arrest, and worse.