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February 4, 2011

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?


August 6, 2010

Who writes history?

History may only rarely be written by the losers, but it is always written by the writers.


April 9, 2010

[2b2k] Mr. Denham’s defense of child chimney sweeps

From the summary of the remarks in 1819 of a Mr. Denham during the British House of Commons debate of a bill that would have limited the use of young boys as chimney sweeps — as young as four years old, stuck into chimneys 7″ square for up to six hours at a time [source]. How many modern arguments can you spot?

If chimneys could be swept by machinery cheaper and better than by boys, he could not conceive that the people of this country were so attached to cruel treatment merely because it was cruel, as to continue to sweep with children, when if would be better to sweep with machinery. If, as had been stated by an hon. gentleman, on the authority of the fire-offices, that machinery was safer and better, he should think it was quite enough to state this to the public in order to induce them to adopt machinery. When he found in this bill a series of clauses, empowering a single justice to convict on the evidence of a single witness, and the functions of a jury superseded, he could not help viewing it as extremely objectionable. He must see a strong case of necessity made out before he could vote for such a measure. … [H]e thought the good sense of the public was sufficient to correct the evil without loading the statute book with another penal law, every penal law being in his opinion a great evil. … It might be proper that children of tender age, either with their parents or as parish paupers, ought not to be bound out to this employment; but he thought that parents might in general be trusted with the guardianship of their own children; and he submitted, whether it would not be better that they should be employed in sweeping chimneys than in idleness, in the workhouse, or in the fraud and pilfering which was now so common among boys of tender age. With respect to the convictions for breach of covenant before a magistrate, he could not see why this, like any other covenant, should not go before a jury. He did not wish to give such enormous powers to magistrates…

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December 21, 2009

[2b2k] Struggling with who cares

Yesterday I wrote a little — which will probably turn out to be too much — about the history of fact-finding missions. They’re really quite new, becoming a conspicuous part of international dispute settlement only with the creation of The Hague Convention in 1899. If you do a search on the phrase at the NY Times, you’ll see that there are only intermittent references until the 1920s when suddenly there are lots of them.

It strikes me as odd that we didn’t always have fact-finding missions, which is why I find it interesting. But I don’t think I can convince the reader that it’s interesting, which is why I’ve probably gone on too long about them. (There were obviously previous times when we tried to ascertain facts, but the phrase and the institutionalizing of fact-finding missions or commissions is what’s relatively new.)

Today I’m thinking I really need to shore up the opening section of this first chapter in order to show why the next section (on the history of facts, including fact-finding missions) matters. I think I’ll try to do that by briefly sketching our normal “architecture” of knowledge. For this it’d be good to come up with an easy example. Working on it…


November 30, 2009

350 years of science

The Royal Society has posted pdfs of 60 of the most important papers it’s published in its 350 years. Want to read Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s paper on wee beasties? Newton on light and optics? Natural selection of the peppered moth? We gotcha historic scientific papers right here!


May 21, 2009

Timegliding the Rosenberg case

The Rosenberg spy case, which was a touchstone for the left and the right — or the pinkos and the McCarthyites, as it’s thought of in the Culture Wars — has been made more understandable by the Cold War International History Project by the creation of a Timeglide time line. It’s useful as a supplement to a narrative and as a way to drill down, although by itself it’s not the optimal way of telling the story, nor is it intended to be. (It may also work better for people with brainage opposite to mine.)

I’m not an expert in the case, so I can’t judge its accuracy or completeness. But it’s got lots of links to sources. And it’s a very nice way of organizing a mass of time-based materials.

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June 1, 2008

New issue of JOHO … Now with added Ethanz!

I’ve just sent out a new issue of my newsletter, JOHO. (You can sign up to receive it via email, for free of course, here.)

How much do we have to care about? Even if the mainstream media’s coverage of most of the world didn’t suck, would we care? Are we capable of caring sufficiently? (Annotated by Ethan Zuckerman!)

The population of Nigeria roughly equals the population of Japan. Yet, the amount of space given to Nigeria by the US news media makes it about the size of Britney Spears’ left pinky toe. Why?

Serious researchers have been considering this question for generations. Do American newspaper editors skimp on Nigeria because they’re racists? Nah, at least not in the straightforward way. Is it because the readers don’t care about Nigeria? Somewhat. But how will we ever care if we never read anything about it? We seem to be stuck in vicious circle, or what’s worse,  a circle of not-caring…

Vint Cerf’s curiosity: If we are indeed getting more of a stomach for the complex, what role has our technology played?

Esquire magazine recently ran an interview with him that they busted up into a series of unrelated quotations. I was particularly struck by one little insight:

  “The closer you look at something, the more complex it seems to be.”

Because of Esquire’s disaggregation of the interview, we have to guess at Cerf’s tone of voice. My guess is that he said this with a sense of wonder and delight, not out of frustration. Of course, I may be reading Cerf’s mind inaccurately. But the plausibility of that reading is itself significant…

History’s wavefrontWhen we can record just about everything, history loses its past. And, no, I don’t know what I mean by that.

The Strand Bookstore in NYC has eighteen miles of books, which works out to about 2.5 million volumes. My excellent local library has 409,000. The Strand’s shelves press the shoppers together, giving a sense that the place is alive with the love of books. The library is quieter because emptier. Even so, the library has something the Strand does not: history.

We’ve assumed that knowledge was always there, just waiting to be known…

ROFLcon and Woodstock: Am I so enthusiastic about the ROFLcon conference because it was important or just because I’m out of touch?

I was at Woodstock. For two hours. I was supposed to meet a girl there. Hahaha. Instead, I wandered around, hoping someone would offer me something to smoke to get me through the Melanie performance. So, let me recap: I was at Woodstock, didn’t meetup with the girl I was infatuated with, didn’t get stoned, and heard Melanie. Also, it was raining. Still, I was at Woodstock, which used to give me street cred, but now just makes me obsolete.

But forget my experience and take Woodstock as a watershed event at which the young realized they were more a potential movement and not just a demographic slice. ROFLcon felt something like that…

Is the Web different? The definitive and final answer.

I taught a course this past semester for the first time in 22 years.  The course was called “The Web Difference,” which was apt since it was about whether the Web is actually much different from what came before it, with an emphasis on what that might mean for law and policy. 

During the final class session, I took a survey…

The Turing Tests: Throwback humor, in both senses.

The fool. I won’t spend the money yet, but it’s only a matter of time before Van Klammer will lose our bet. I don’t care about winning the $100, of course. I’ll use it to buy something I’ll use frequently, to remind me of my moral and intellectual victory. Perhaps a set of mugs inscribed with “Courtesy of Dr. Van Klammer…Loser!”…

Bogus Contest: Surely anagrams can’t be random!

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April 16, 2008

The politics of playing cards

Thanks to my relentless ego-surfing, um, I mean my participating in the ongoing conversation that is the Web, I came across a rough draft of a course paper by Devin Dadigan about the racism and sexism implicit in playing cards, — which, apparently are ordered the way they have been since the 14th century. Kings beat queens, and, the black queen is an especially disastrous card in several games.

At first I thought Devin’s hypothesis about race was problematic, because I thought clubs are sometimes taken as the highest suit, even though Devin says that black cards represent labor and slaves. (That link seems incontestable in America where “spade” has been a demeaning — and occasionally hip — term for African-Americans.) Wikipedia, however, says that when suits are ranked, clubs sometimes come first because the ranking is done alphabetically. Ah, the hidden power of alphabetization! Why, it even cures racism!

Fascinating fact: According to the paper, the ascent of the ace as the highest card “was hastened in the late 18th century by the French Revolution, where games began being played ‘ace high’ as a symbol of lower classes rising in power above the royalty.”

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January 23, 2008


I just came across smARThistory. Here’s how Beth Harris and Steven Zucker describe it:

We had both developed quite a bit of content for our online art history courses, and we have also created many podcasts, and a few screencasts for our smARThistory blog. So, it occurred to us, why not use the personal voice that we use when we teach online, along with the multimedia we had already created for our blog and for our courses, to create a more engaging ” web-book” that could be used in conjunction with art history survey courses. We are also interested in joining the growing number of teachers who were making their content freely available on the web.

It’s interesting, multimedia, good looking, free, and nicely voiced, although I personally would like to see them push it further, especially with regard to incorporating students and other readers. (Easy for me to say.)

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