Malcolm Gladwell has certainly been one of the most influential and popular thought-leaders of the last decade. His books The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What The Dog Saw have all been best-sellers. He’s an eagled-eyed trend-spotter, a fine reporter, and a writer with a clear, compelling style.
But he’s not always right about everything.
In the October 4 edition of The New Yorker, Gladwell’s piece “Small Change” compares the civil-rights activism of the 1960s with activism in the age of Facebook and Twitter. I’ll spare you his entire argument–you can read it for yourself here–but suffice to say that Gladwell is not a believer in the power of social media to effect social change. “(Social media activism) is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger,” Gladwell writes. “It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.”
Gladwell acknowledges that networks have some advantages–namely, the power to adapt and be resilient “in low-risk situations.” But networks can’t set goals and don’t have any vision. “Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars,” he writes.
Ironically, the place Gladwell’s argument breaks down is in that last sentence. Gladwell acts as if the committed organization and the network of loosely affiliated followers are mutually exclusive. He could not be more wrong. In the Age of Social Media, it’s the bold organization that understands and takes advantage of the reach and adaptability of broad social networks that really has the opportunity to change the world.
In effect, Gladwell is comparing apple pie and ice cream–and failing to notice how much more delicious they are when you eat them together. A cyber-revolution would never have worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gladwell says. Of course it wouldn’t have–not by itself. But why does he think all the brave people who marched and demonstrated and sat in would have opted to stay at home and tweet instead of getting involved personally? Surely, Gladwell would admit that the televised reports of civil rights demonstrations helped sway the opinions of people across the nation. Twitter and Facebook are, among other things, great aggregators and disseminators of images and information. It did not take an entire nation sitting at a Greensboro lunch counter to change the world. But it certainly took all of us watching, and caring, and seeing for ourselves the injustice of “separate but equal” to bring about real, lasting change.
The Vietnam War was protested by organized anti-war groups. But the war ended when those groups–and the shocking news images and reports from Southeast Asia–influenced a majority of Americans to believe the war was unjust. It took the brave protesters and the broad network stop a war in which 58,000 American soldiers and millions of soldiers and civilians in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia lost their lives.
Similarly, it’s going to take all of us–committed people in our communities and larger networks of sympathizers–to challenge the status quo and effect change today. It takes programs like Second Helpings working to fight hunger and empower people–and thousands of people who volunteer bits of their time and donate money to the cause. It takes organizations like the Humane Society to actually save and protect companion animals and educate the public–and the thousands of people who respond to their requests for financial support. It takes grassroots efforts like our own Second Story to reach into our schools and engage our students–and hundreds of others who believe the cause is important enough to support financially and emotionally. Gladwell notes that the 1,282,339 members of the Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition have contributed an average of nine cents apiece to the cause. Last time I did the math, that added up to more than $115,000. Which means that if everyone in Indianapolis gave me nine cents, I could help a lot of kids learn to love writing.
(I suppose Gladwell might say that some of the organizations I named above fall into his “buffing around the edges” category, but I’d challenge him to deliver food with me some Friday morning, or review the state of animal welfare in Indianapolis, or step into our public schools. If this is buffing, we could use a heavier grade of sandpaper.)
Social media will never take the place of strong organizations. And Gladwell and Frank Rich are correct in warning against the powersuckering fakes–Democratic and Republican alike–who use social media to bamboozle a gullible populace.
But Twitter didn’t turn us into cowards. And Facebook doesn’t destroy the strong-tie connections we need to change the things that need changing. Some of us will still march in the streets and sit in at the lunch counters–and we’ll use social media to gain support for our causes. The revolution will be tweeted.