Monday, October 04, 2010

Twitter and Facebook cannot change the real world, says Malcolm Gladwell
The bestselling author of The Tipping Point has enraged social network users by dismissing their impact on real issues

Tim Adams The Observer, Sunday 3 October 2010

Malcolm Gladwell. Photograph: Zuma / Rex Features/KPA/

Social networks, those loose, busy and self-absorbing communities of Facebookers and Twitterers, have always invited analogies from the insect world. If we are to accept the most common of them, then in the past week, Malcolm Gladwell, provocateur-in-chief at the New Yorker magazine, has poked a sharp stick into the online ants' nest. The twitterers have responded to his provocation by swarming on to blogs and websites to protect their uniting belief: that the future belongs to them.

Gladwell is a spirited contrarian. His argument in the New Yorker was an attack on the prevalent idea that online social networks represent the future of campaigning and protest, and perhaps – in totalitarian states – of revolution. The bestselling author of The Tipping Point unpicked this notion with typical chutzpah, moving quickly from emotive and carefully selected individual case studies to sweeping universal principles.

Gladwell examined the most effective mass protest of modern times – the American civil rights movement. Using an account of the courageous coffee bar sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, he argued that such activism was based on the strength of intimate friendships and shared experience, and directed by hierarchical power, could never have arisen from the "weak ties" and "horizontal" associations that characterise the campaigning of online "friends" and "followers".

"Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that [Martin Luther] King's task in Birmingham, Alabama, would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail," Gladwell argued.

"But [online] networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterises Wikipedia. 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 98% of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed – discipline and strategy – were things that online social media cannot provide."
Full story at The Observer.

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