Where Gladwell goes wrong: substitution vs. integration

Malcolm Gladwell takes social media activism to task in a new article in the New Yorker. In “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” Gladwell argues that the weak personal ties in social media, as opposed to strong ties in real world settings, and a Wikipedia-like network of supporters, as opposed to a hierarchical structure of advocacy organizations, cannot deliver real revolutions.

He has a point, but largely misses the real point. The real point is that it’s not a case of social media activism versus real world activism; it’s a case of social media activism and real world activism. Would we ever advocate for social media marketing to replace direct marketing, advertising and public relations? No. It’s not about replacing, but rather complementing and integrating.

Social media has particular strengths. Even Gladwell admits that “there is strength in weak ties.” But there should be no expectation of online being stronger than offline efforts in every single objective toward your goal.

When I conducted my #floodofsupport experiment, the results could have been construed as somewhat disappointing. But I did not send an appeal to friends and family, I purely relied on my Twitter network. That was the point. Even then, those who donated were definitely contacts with whom I had more in-depth conversations. So yes, if you build a campaign to solely rely on weak ties, it seldom leads to great involvement and thus could be construed as disappointing.

The basis for Gladwell’s article is exactly those kinds of experiments and case studies; examples with a narrow focus on the effectiveness of social media to deliver perfect results in all areas of an overarching goal. But shouldn’t we use social media tools for the particular strengths they have and consequently measure social media in terms of specific objectives, rather than an overall goal?

In Gladwell’s example of Iran, the media is perhaps to blame for calling it a Twitter Revolution while not getting the subtleties. But as Golnaz Esfandiari wrote in Foreign Policy: “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.”

The key word in that quote is inside. While Twitter might not have had a crucial role in the materialization of the protests, it certainly had a crucial role in bringing the protests to the outside world. Without Twitter, where would the media coverage have been? Without Twitter the impact of the protests on the global stage would have been far less.

I recently wrote about imagined online communities. Taking the perspective from Benedict Anderson’s seminal Imagined Communities, in which he argues that print-capitalism “made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate to others, in profoundly new ways.”

Because of vernacularism, the Church lost its grip to control the message. This print-capitalism and all its impact ultimately, after a century or two, spurred the American and French revolutions. In Iran, the government held a firm grip on what was reported during the protests, but it couldn’t stop the vernacularism of Twitter slipping out to reach the masses.

The Boston Tea Party would have been a hit on Twitter. The storming of the Bastille would have made great YouTube clips. Now Sam Adams might or might not have arranged the dumping of the tea, but he sure publicized the protest afterward. And he was able to publicize it because of print-capitalism. Those are the strengths of social media as well; a small event can find a large public to amplify its impact.

And if you really want to turn all those weak-tie tweets in a broad network into donations or social change, take a look at what a blogger like Fatty is doing. His network of supposed weak ties is organizing in different cities across the country, and working with an organization such as Livestrong. It’s a perfect blend of online and offline, of weak ties and strong ties, of network and hierarchy.

And isn’t that what the real point is? Blending these efforts to come to the most effective road toward social change?

p.s. Malcolm Gladwell will take your questions tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Where Gladwell goes wrong: substitution vs. integration”

  1. Well said. I think Gladwell speaks eloquently to the concerns of people coming at this issue from outside the sometimes insular sphere of the social web.

    As one who has read all his books, I was honored to see him cite The Dragonfly Effect. In it we both observe and address his criticisms of the social web and examine how would-be change agents need to design and manage their efforts.

    Specifically, they must inextricably link online and offline efforts (as the Obama campaign did so effectively) and to design an ‘ask strategy’ that ensures that small acts of participation, which are good as a starting point ‘ladder-up’ and lead people to meaningful participation. It’s critical not to give people a “premature sense of completeness.” To see more on this point, see Fast Company’s book excerpt “The Dark Side of Social Networking.” http://www.fastcompany.com/article/the-dark-side-of-social-networking

  2. Thanks for the comment, Andy. I agree, Gladwell definitely has a strong and eloquent point, it’s just a shame he was dealing with absolutes, and “either” “ors.”

    And thanks for the link to the excerpt. You sure convinced me to order the book. Could use another great read on nonprofits, social change and social media. Beth Kanter’s Networked Nonprofit made me hungry for more…

  3. Marc, your blog was cited at Andrew Taylor’s most recent blog post and I you nailed it in the head. There was too much absolutes in what Gladwell pointed out. As I wrote in Andrew’s blog post, I believe the main purpose of his article was to spark discussion. And it did, thus another testament to what social media can do when it comes to sparkling a dialogue on issues.

    Social media, these days, is definitely a tool for social change. It is not the only tool and not the ultimate solution to everyone’s problems when carrying out campaigns or advocating causes, but it is an essential artillery in the battle for attention in media-heavy environment.

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