Last night my Twitter feed blew up with lines like “Malcolm Gladwell thinks Social Media is weak” or ” Surprise, The New Yorker hates Social Media”. These were all reposes to Mr Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article on Social Media and social activism.
I like Gladwell. He’s an academic without being an Academic, in a way that allows him to take something like the Milgram Study and turn it into a brilliantly written best seller. With that being said he has a tendency to read history with one eye open (or really just write it that way) while rapidly flattening the rest. The New Yorker piece is no exception, and I’m not even sure it’s really about social media at all.
The article focuses on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and the “strong-ties” that effectively caused actions, opposed to the “weak ties” promoted by services like Twitter and Facebook which simply produce an awareness. Gladwell declares “Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” This is a telling sentence for the historical framework of the article, as it never cites any movement past 1970. In no way am I trying to undermine the importance of The Civil Rights movement, but in writing an article about activism structured by the two poles of The Civil Rights Movement and the “Twitter Revolution” of Iran and Moldova wouldn’t it be useful to cover some of the steps between? The Anti-War Movement? Seattle 99′?
Gladwell views “activism” in a very finite way and then suggests that it’s because of our digitally networked lives that effective activism is dying out
“Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies.”
Good call Malcolm! This is exactly the what many modern activists are addressing. Some of the largest protests in the last twenty years have been staged by the Alterglobalize Movement. The very nature of this assembly is not to have a central hierarchy but “affinity groups”; egalitarian decision-making structures*. These groups formed as reactions to activist structures, that Gladwell outlines ,of the 60’s and 70’s; either align with brave and charismatic personalities (effectively making them targets) or military cell structures that carried out guriella style attacks. Mr Gladwell finds himself in a chicken or the egg scenario. Is he really suggesting tools like Twitter or Facebook cause something like Toronto, or did the founders of these systems simply recognize that people were beginning to think this way already? Wasn’t that the point of The Situationists, Punk, Hip-Hop and just about every other social movement?
Gladwell’s final sentence does the most damage to the articles central thesis
“What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.”
Gladwell’s argument shifts from the digital tools, to whom has access to these tools. It’s a good point, but one that has been recognized for a while and deserves more attention than being clumped in with Gladwell’s “weak ties” of social media. After spending 4,300 words dismissing the “revolution” of social media he admits that certain platforms do provide empowerment and it’s a shame more don’t have access to it.
The article is a great reminder as to what Gladwell is, a thoughtful, diligent, and popular journalist about social theory but no social theorist. Which is a shame, because beneath it all I think Gladwell’s thesis is important and one that needs a wider audience; if we believe this to be a “revolution” then we must recognize the digital revolution for exactly what it is. Supporters of both the French and Russian Revolution assumed their best intentions, not their worst, would emerge from the ashes. They were absolutely stunned when this didn’t happen. So in the hype of Adweek, as the gospel of social media rings through the streets of Manhattan we should be asking what it really means for this world that so many people are playing Farmville and consuming/sharing/Twittering gossip.
*A lot this has been traced to Quaker origins and their consensus based decision making