Malcolm Gladwell: Twitter, You’re No Martin Luther King

Malcolm Gladwell has roiled things up with an article arguing that fans of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook are wildly overstating the powers of these tools to change things. As an example, he uses the civil rights movement as it rose out of the Montgomery bus strike and (more immediately) the Greensboro Four, the four black students who catalyzed the civil rights movement by sitting down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and asking for a cup of coffee.

As usual, this piece by Gladwell contains some wonderful writing, research, and storytelling. It certainly refreshes one’s awe at what the civil rights movement accomplished and at the extreme discipline and courage of its leaders and activists. Things go not so well, however, when Gladwell uses this extraordinary example to argue that those who argue that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools — and by extension, the power of the internet to forge new connections and ideas — are a bit wild-eyed and delusional.

His pushback produced some predictable wretching on Twitter. My favorite critique so far, however — remarkably quick, as Gladwell’s story just came out — emerged from Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic. Madrigal offers a smart and evenhanded critique. He  praises some of Gladwell’s stronger points, then makes a couple quibbles: First, that Gladwell is wrong when he says Twitter forms only weak ties; and, second, that he overstates what he claims that networks can’t have hierarchies.

Both legitimate points with which I agree. (Disclosure: I may be biased here by my own ties with Madrigal, which were — ahem — formed first on Twitter and then in a long, merry lunch when I met him and some others in San Francisco last year. I’ve not had the opportunity to form similar ties with Gladwell, but would welcome the opportunity.)

Yet I had another problem with Gladwell’s piece. Perhaps the social media fervor needs a bit of a check right now. Yet as I noted in a comment at the Atlantic, it seemed to me that Gladwell was less concerned with figuring out what makes  social movements really work than he was with deflating social media.  This suspicion is fueled by the overbreadth of his own statements and dismissals, and by some previous dismissals he has made of blogging and other social media. Here he seems intent on using not just a highly difficult problem (challenging institutionalized racism), but precisely the sort of campaign and activism and challenge least amenable to social media to argue that it can’t work — that these new, more open ways of connecting people and passing information are wildly oversold and can’t effect real change. They’ve certainly changed the publishing industry, however, including the financial models and the future of magazines like those he (and I) write for, and stand to radically change science as well. (That’s another story — one I’m writing right now, actually, and so must wait.)

Granted, changing publishing and opening up the communication of scientific data and ideas may not be change as dramatic as that wrought by The Greensboro Four and Martin Luther King. But how often do we get change that radical anyway? Not very. Gladwell had to go back to the civil rights movement to find an example in the US. Along the way back along the timeline he bypassed the antiwar movement, among other things, and I can see why: The antiwar movement stopped a war with a far sloppier and less disciplined movement than that created by the southern churches; it drew as heavily on social networks as on hierarchies, and at times it was high-risk too, even if not as much so as the civil rights movement.

And stopping a war is a pretty big deal — even if not as big a deal as driving racism underground and out of a nation’s laws. To score his points and loose ties and sloppy, sometimes passing networks look weak, Glad well had to use perhaps the toughest, most challenging episode of social change in the country’s history as a case study. It’s hardly a surprise he finds that Twitter and Facebook — and a rather oversimplified view of them to boot — seem a bit weak by comparison.

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