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Gladwell proves too much

Malcolm Gladwell is going further out on his cranky branch. His reading of the role of social media in Tunisia and Egypt actually seems to lead to conclusions that I think he would acknowledge are extreme and extremely unlikely. (I look at his new post in some detail after the big box below.)

Gladwell is in the unfortunate position of having published a New Yorker article dismissive of the effect of social media on social protest movements just weeks before the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts. Now Gladwell has posted a 200-word commentary that maintains his position without emendation. (Mathew Ingram has an excellent response to Gladwell’s latest post.)

I was among the many who replied to Gladwell’s initial article. I began that piece by trying to outline Gladwell’s argument, in a neutral and fair way. This is what I came up with:

In 1960, four college students staged a sit-in in NC. Within a week, sit-ins had started to spread like “a fever.”

Gladwell now states the claim he is going debunk: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism.” He then points to world events that have been claimed to support that view.

But, (he continues) those events were not really brought about by social media. Why would we think they were? It’s not due just to over-enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” It is really our understanding of activism that is at issue.

Now, back to the sit-ins. They were dangerous. Civil rights activism took courage. That courage required strong ties to other activists. This was true not just of the civil rights movement in the US, but is a general characteristic of activism.

But, “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all.” Social media (Twitter, Facebook) are all about weak ties. Weak ties are “in many ways a wonderful thing…But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Social media activism works when little is asked of people.

Activism requires not just strong ties, but also strong, centralized, hierarchical organization. Not networks. You need a hierarchy “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment…”

As an example, Gladwell ridicules the opening story in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, about how “the crowd” got a smart phone returned to its rightful owner. “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

Now apply that to Tunisia and Egypt. You would think that these were pretty dramatic counter-examples. Gladwell does not think so. In fact, his recent post reads as if he’s exasperated that anyone is still bothering to disagree with him:

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.

Even the fact the post is only 200 words long gives the impression that the two Mideast upheavals are barely worth his time.

Let’s look at each of the post’s two paragraphs.

Paragraph #1. This is a paragraph of ridicule: Paying attention to social media is like hearing a famous revolutionary statement from Mao Zedong, paying scant attention to its content and import, and instead getting all excited because of the medium he used.

Yes, it is possible to pay too much attention to the medium as opposed to the message. But, as with so many arguments by ridicule, this one doesn’t advance our thought at all. We can counter by trying to make the analogy more exact: If in 1935 Mao had said “Power springs from the barrel of a gun,” and it had spread through, say, a new-fangled telephone tree so that it reached beyond the boundaries of government-controlled radio, and if that statement had signaled a turn to violent uprising, it would be irresponsible to ignore the role of the medium in the dissemination of the message. Or, if government printers had in the 1960s refused to publish the Little Red Book that spread that quote, the lack of a medium for it would surely be worth discussing. Media play an important role. When the medium is new, it is right to examine that role. That is not to say that the medium is a sufficient cause, or is the only thing worth discussing. But who has attributed the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings solely to the existence of social media?

Gladwell’s argument in this first paragraph therefore seems to me to be: (1) Ultimately an argument against media having any role or significance in political movements; (2) An argument against a strawman; (3) Less an argument at all than a “Hey you kids, get off my lawn” statement of alignment.

Paragraph #2. Gladwell reiterates his point that political activism requires strong ties, and social media only provides weak ties. He defends these contentions by using the word “surely,” which almost always indicates that the speaker has no evidence to present that could in fact make us sure: “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.”

It is not at all obvious that this is the least interesting fact. Social media are a new variable. Because history is so damn particular, contingent, and emergent, we can never be entirely sure which new variables matter. The anti-Mubarak demonstrations have been (apparently) heavily supported by Egypt’s trade unions, for example; perhaps that’s worth exploring. Declaring the possible role of social media the “least interesting fact” seems based either on an a priori belief that (a) media never have an important role in social movements, or (b) our new social media can have no role because of Gladwell’s theory that they can’t supply the strong ties necessary for activism. The first alternative seems too silly to defend. If it’s the second, then I would have thought a reasonable response from Gladwell would have been along these lines: “I’ve put forward a bold hypothesis about the ineffectiveness of social media. That hypothesis is based primarily on some historical examples. We have some new examples before us. Let us examine them to see if they indeed support my hypothesis — especially since so many have claimed that this new evidence refutes that hypothesis.” Instead we get all the power a confidently rendered “surely” can bring.

But the second paragraph is not over. Gladwell now gives examples of historical revolutions that succeeded before the development of the Net. The conclusion warranted from this evidence is that no particular medium is necessary for a revolution: We know you can have a revolution without, say, telephones because we’ve had many such revolutions. But this is a really bad way to argue about historical explanations. Many wars have ended without any atomic bombs being used, so we might as well say that historians ought not to consider the effect dropping a-bombs had on ending WWII. No, if we want to understand an event, we have to understand it within its history. The events in Tunisia and Egypt are occurring within a history in which social media are being used for among the first times. That makes the question of the role of social media interesting, and, under most theories of history — ones in which the nature of the contemporary media plays a contributing part — important.

Gladwell’s second paragraph therefore “proves” too much. But he backs off the obvious silliness of where his arguments lead by concluding: “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.” He thus proposes a sort of historical determinism: No matter what the means of communication, those who want a revolution will have a revolution. But: (1) How do we know this is true? (2) The means of communication may well affect (a) when it happens, (b) how it happens, (c) who participates, (d) its success, (e) how the world reacts, and (f) how the participants view themselves as a social group. That last point I acknowledge is the squishiest of them, but it may have the most lasting effect, helping to shape the governmental structure that emerges post-revolution: “We are a mob inspired by the incredible leaders who have the megaphones” might tend toward differences in governance than “We are a connected, empowered network.” In any case, it seems to me that investigating the role of social media is not an activity beneath contempt.

And that’s why I’ve written a post ten times longer than the one it’s discussing. Gladwell — with his amazing ability to illuminate difficult matters — is not merely splashing cold water on an overheated subject, but is trying to drown the subject entirely. Because we don’t yet understand the effect social media are having on social movements, it is unhelpful to have such a powerful voice ridiculing the effort to trace their effects. Gladwell’s attempt to undo unwarranted enthusiasm comes across instead as an argument for diminished nuance. That is exactly what Gladwell is decrying in our discourse, and is not what his body of writing has exemplified.

So, I come out of his brief post wondering how Gladwell would answer the following questions:

1. Does Gladwell believe that the means of communication never has any effect on any social protest movement? (“…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.”)

2. If he believes that the means of communication can have some effect, then does he believe that some media that do not create strong ties — radio, newspapers, tv, etc. — are worth considering when trying to understand social protest movements? If so, then why are networked social media not worth considering?

3. If social media are worth considering as playing some role in social protests, exactly what role and how important? A role so trivial that it is literally the least interesting factor historians and analysts should be looking at? Or is it of more importance than that, but just not anywhere near worth the amount of attention it’s been getting?

4. On what does he base these views? A theory about how social protest movements have worked and must work? Does he hold this theory as so obviously true that all events must now be interpreted within it, or is he willing to examine events to see if they support or contradict his theory?

41 Responses to “Gladwell proves too much”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Weinberger, Andrew Lih, Joshua Levy, Roy Christopher, Michael Nelson and others. Michael Nelson said: RT @dweinberger: I just posted a discussion of Gladwell's post that's 10x longer than the original :( […]

  2. Most bizarre to me is Gladwell’s presumption that social media’s most important (and yet dismissable) role was in organizing. He seems trapped in the notion that the only relevant use of new media was among the protesters: “to communicate with one another.”

    Compare and contrast a local uprising (organized by whatever means):

    A) which remains unknown to the world for the few hours a vicious military needs to disperse and / or disappear all of the participants.

    B) whose every action is telegraphed (ironic metaphor) to the entire world, including all media, in real time, by a thousand participants.

    Can Gladwell seriously suggest that Mubarek withheld the military might he has accrued for thirty years because it was the “right thing to do”? Did the hundreds of tweets flowing out of Tahrir Square have no effect on world opinion? On gathering political pressure?

    How many participants in uprisings that ~lacked~ social media lie quietly buried in mass graves? What might be different if the crowd had been able to tweet their plight as the oppressor’s army advanced?

  3. Good post.

    We should always be careful to disentangle the many causes of complex events like revolutions. No serious person would differ with that argument.

    But like many commentators, Gladwell fails to fully appreciate that the internet is not like previous media.

    The internet a medium of communication, but it is simultaneously a medium of organization.

  4. David:

    Nice deconstruction.

    If media does not matter – they why do totalitarian governments always control media?

    Social media is people powered, distributed media – and very difficult for any totalitarian (or other) regime to control. It is this very distributed, uncontrollable nature that makes the internet (pipes) and social media tools so threatening to totalitarian regimes.

    Obama (initially an underdog) Wikileaks and the Tea Party have all successfully used social media to gather their tribes and overthrow institutional authority.

    The only way to make the argument that SM doesn’t matter to human progress is to argue that communication doesn’t matter. It is like saying that the Guttenberg press didn’t matter. Further democratization of the means of communication always matters.

    I guess Gladwell disagrees.


  5. Tom, I’m not 100% convinced that MG thinks communications media ever matter. His “We’ve had revolutions with only the human voice” seems to think that he thinks comms don’t matter. He writes: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. ” That is so patently false, but seems to imply MG thinks comms just plays no role in social protest movements. That’s such an unbelievable belief that it makes me think I’m either misunderstanding him, or he’s been pushed into an extreme position by current events’ challenge to his published theory.

  6. Gary, thanks for the point. In fact, minutes after I posted this post, I saw your tweet and added what is now point (e). I’d simply overlooked this crucial point. (I didn’t credit you in the body because it felt pretty disruptive of the flow, and I figured I’d acknowledge you here in the comments.)

  7. @Tom – your comment sums it up quite well for me:

    “…to make the argument that SM doesn’t matter to human progress is to argue that communication doesn’t matter.”

    Not sure if you caught the Piers Morgan show on CNN this week. He had a former prince of Egypt on who called Twitter the best invention since electricity.

  8. During a Poynter Institute online chat with NPR reporter Andy Carvin, who covered the Tunisia and Egypt uprisings and argued that these are not “social media revolutions,” I asked what would have been different WITHOUT social media. He answered that he had posed the same question to one of his contacts on the ground, who said that the uprising would have been “longer and a lot, lot bloodier.” The channels used during such events DO have an impact.

    The transcript of the chat is here:

  9. I liked this response. But I think it’s important to differentiate between the two poles–social media has no influence whatsoever vs. social media is the answer combating to totalitarian regimes. Journalists and the media seem to tout the Internet in general, and social media in particular, as the arbiter of progress, democratic revolution, etc. Gladwell here is reacting to this notion, but unfortunately fails to give any substantive answers as to why social media does or does not matter–he only says because it is not “interesting.” Laughable, to be sure, but I think cold water does need to be tossed onto this overheated issue in some ways–social media is an interesting lens to look at social protest movements, but the way we talk about social media and the internet matters. We should be cognizant of the significance we place on the Internet, careful not to inscribe ideologies or politics upon it, for the Internet can be a tool of the dominators as well as the dominated, a point made more articulately by Evgeny Morozov in his latest post.

  10. Knowledge of injustice needs to be communicated in order for reactive protests to occur. This communication can occur by word of mouth, paper, electronic media, or the internet.

    The publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s – Uncle Tom’s Cabin – had a profound effect upon anti-slavery sentiments in the Northern States.

    It seems absurd to assert that newer means of communication would not facilitate the dissemination of information regarding injustice in a way that is different from previous modes of communication.

    It seems even more absurd to assert that social media had no effect whatsoever upon political rebellion.

    The questions should be –

    How has social media changed the manner in which information concerning injustice is distributed?

    How has the information distributed upon social media facilitated social protest?

  11. All very good points. To me it seems like he could have avoided all the fuss if he simply noted that how “interesting” an aspect of revolution is depends on each individual’s own interests. People who study communications technology are going to be very interested. I don’t see why it would be controversial, unless Gladwell has a complaint against that entire field of inquiry. (Why should it exist at all if researchers are wrong to be interested in its role in revolutions?) Journalists who are looking for new sources and new ways to do journalism are going to be interested. And even protest organizers themselves are going to be very interested in how they organize & communicate, not just why.

    Personally I think we should just stop giving him so much credit as a critic. He’s a great writer and storyteller but that doesn’t mean he’s a great analyst.

  12. I was led to this post by the tweets of Jay Rosen and I’m awfully glad I follow him because this is a wonderful deconstruction of Gladwell’s (lack of) thinking. If you read my post on Huffington Post, you’ll see somewhat similar reasoning. I agree that he dismisses the importance of all media. Which is just silly.

  13. […] Social media and revolution: Weinberger responds to Gladwell […]

  14. Totally agreed.

    Whenever someone discounts the role of media in civic action, I remind them of Freedom Summer. Freedom Summer was an explicitly calculated initiative designed for the primary purpose of drawing the attention and caring of powerful Northern whites. The entire thing – while no less sincere on the part of any of the activists involved – was an acknowledgment of the importance of *outside* media to the success of an uprising. Just one example, but a powerful one and from our own history.

    And since I happen to have gathered other relevant links: [many referring to internet, FB, Twitter] [Thank you Facebook in Arabic]

    The Motherboard post pretty much refutes Gladwell, IMHO, from an Egyptians perspective.

  15. […] [Full article here.] […]

  16. Perhaps Gladwell’s article does go a bit too far in defense of his views, but I’m inclined to read it more as over-the-top rhetoric than as insidious logic.

    To me, Gladwell’s point is not so much that social media are irrelevant to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, but that, in our myopic focus on these new means of communication, we fail to present a balance picture of social media’s strengths AND weaknesses, and we fail to respect the (non-social-media) underpinnings of these revolutions.

    IMHO, accusing Gladwell of attempting to “drown the subject entirely” is making a mountain out of a molehill and creating an unnecessary debate about Gladwell’s rhetorical devices which overshadows some of the interesting questions you pose. Why spend time telling people that the role of social media is worth investigating when that time could be better spent carrying out the actual investigation? Interesting data will speak for itself.

    As you said, cold water on an overheated topic.

  17. […] some some similar arguments and extends the discussion with his usual intellectual firepower. And here‘s a great post David Weinberger who’s just had […]

  18. Ingresar

  19. C’mon, Gladwell the ivory tower thinker knows about as much about a real revolution as I do about menopause… he knows neither the root causes nor the drivers that make people do incredible things under the right circumstances – most of his life was lived behind a pen, not on the streets of some third world country.

  20. The U.S. has approved Genetically Modified Sugar Beets.

  21. […] / Joho the Blog: Gladwell proves too much  —  Malcolm Gladwell is going further out on his cranky branch.  His reading […]

  22. Gladwell is right. The only reason you want to go againt what he is saying is because you probably have some kind of role in social media.

  23. Gladwell is correct that the conditions of dissent are what drives the revolt. He agrees too with which also discounts social media the same way.

    To use his own analogy, social media is a fulcrum that makes one of his tipping points function. It accellerates communication and organization enough so it gets ahead of the dictatorship, before they can respond to the uprising and put it down. It helps everybody change their minds about something very quickly. It took 70 years for this change to happen inside the USSR without SM – ho fast would it have been with it?

    SM also connects the rest of the world to the events at the level of the individual, not through the lens of a middleman like a newspaper. That brings ideas, organization, and people from the outside in.

    It is kind of like the invention of the airplane in WWI that changed war forever and led to America defeating Japan in the Pacific. It was a fundamental change that can’t be undone.


  24. Un blog remarquable,très bien ecrit et les propos sont pertinents!

  25. Please. The struggles against the Dictator Mubarak have been led by ordinary people putting themselves in front of fists and guns and tanks and batons and, as always, refusing to be moved. This is no flash mob in the Square, this is simply an old fashioned we-will-not-be-moved mob. The single greatest loss to the people was the spiking of the mobile phone network because then we could not call bacjk to our loved ones to tell them where we were. I’ve yet to see a single person in the street stopping to type out a tweet or update a blog. If they are on the move, then they are running, and talking into their phones as they go. We pass the phones hand to hand – we do not pass tweets hand to hand.

  26. […] Gladwell continues his march toward ignorance with his latest installment in the New Yorker about social […]

  27. I was at the F5 conference in Vancouver last year where Gladwell tried unsuccessfully to sell the social media crowd that social media is ultimately useless of social change.

    He’s still clueless. Essentially, he needs to stop writing the book he’s laying the foundation for, and reinvent his thesis.

    Governments shut down things that are dangerous to them. Egypt didn’t shut down the internet on a lark, just because, or on a whim. Mubarak shut it down to protect himself and his power base.

    ‘Nuff said … though more could be written about many governments around the world who are controlling and managing electronically mediated media right now.

    Clue in, Gladwell. Abandon your thesis before reason abandons you.

  28. I agree with Gladwell. All you have to do is reflect back upon how the manic SXSW pukes abandoned the Iran protesters within a few weeks. Now those hopefuls in Iran, who took to the streets after the encouragement of the weakly tied social narcissists in the USA, are spending the rest of their lives in jail.

    Good job, freaky shallow twitterers.

  29. Thanks so much for this very careful, detailed, well-considered response to Gladwell. I, too, wrote a response to his earlier piece ( but find myself feeling a bit sad about this 200-word intransigent position in the new one. I admire Gladwell. A lot, actually. It is hard to write so cogently and clearly about the complex topics he takes on. But he’s missing the boat so clearly and obviously on this one. I mean, he is a journalist, for pete’s sakes. If he didn’t believe forms of technology and communication (i.e. whether mass printing or the internet) mattered, he would be living a worthless and fruitless life. But obviously he does think his chosen media matters . . . why not others then? Again, thanks for the very constructive deconstruction of the argument. Methinks he’s afraid that his particular medium is endangered and people fearing extinction do not often think clearly or generously towards those threatening them. I have great empathy for any writer and any literary magazine these days but that doesn’t make me want to go muddle-headed over what is a very simple argument about the relationship of media and action. As I’ve said before, the civil rights activists he lauds were brilliant at using the media to get out their message. They would be tweeting now if they were still here and would have used twitter then, had it existed then, along with photographer, television cameras, movie cameras, journalism, and all the arsenal of media weapons at their disposal.

  30. […] offer David Weinberger’s  blog post to provide a more thorough analysis and counter argument to Gladwell’s supercilious stance […]

  31. Joho the Blog » Gladwell proves too much…

    Joho the Blog » Gladwell proves too much…

  32. […] the significance of social media in social movements – and all sorts of A-list pundits and thinkers dismissed […]

  33. […] Bustillos, new media exec Rex Hammock, UMBC prof Zeynep Tufekci, and web philosopher David Weinberger all weighed in with their rejoinders to Gladwell, in a discussion that Washington grad student Deen […]

  34. Cathy D., Nice post

  35. […] Gladwell proves too much- David Weinberger, February 4, 2011 […]

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  37. […] Gladwell proves too much- David Weinberger, February 4, 2011 […]

  38. […] Weinberger, Joho the Blog, “Gladwell proves too much” (posted on February 4, […]

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  41. […] how Gladwell’s latest contrarian missive falls short and David Weinberger, Joho the Blog, “Gladwell proves too much” had quite thoughtful blog posts on this topic, criticizing Gladwell for his dismissal of the […]

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