malcolm gladwell almost got it right

So Malcolm Gladwell has an opinion on “social media as saviour.”  Seems he has been reading the wrong people because I don’t know anyone who believes that.

Gladwell recently penned an article in the New Yorker titled Small Change: why the revolution will not be tweeted. In it he argues that social media has not been responsible for social change and in the future won’t be responsible for social change.

A few things first.  No one really has argued that point.  Well, maybe a few people.  But nobody who anyone takes seriously.  Second, the article is not the first time Gladwell has spoken about social media’s role in society.

Back in April, 6 months ago, Gladwell spoke at the F5 conference in Vancouver.  In his keynote presentation he outlined 3 main points:

  1. Social Media connections are made up of many “weak ties” and very few “strong ties.”
  2. Social Media does not build trust.
  3. Social Media will not change society.

In his New Yorker essay, Gladwell builds on a couple of the same points.  His main argument is that social media has never, and can never, create change in society.

So let’s discuss this.  One example Gladwell continues to come back to is the Iran Election and the influence Twitter had on any protests.  Here’s the deal, some pundits may have said that Twitter was a catalyst in these protests but after reading Gladwell’s piece, I have to be honest with you: It’s the first time I ever heard of it.

In my opinion, and I’m no Gladwell, Twitter was used in a few other ways.  First, it was used by sympathizers to message other supporters outside Iran on activities and progress of the movement.  It was also used by those outside Iran to keep in touch with what was happening inside Iran.

Gladwell also fails to mention the impact YouTube had.  I remember images of a young woman dying on my screen after being caught as an innocent bystander in the Iranian protests.  This and other images helped to strengthen the resolve of those inside Iran as well as their Western supporters.

Gladwell also fails to point out the election of American President Barack Obama.  If you read David Plouffe’s book, The Audacity To Win, you will come to learn the massive role technology and social media had in creating and mobilizing a movement.

Here’s the point, social media tools (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, even SMS and IM) are mediums for the message.  They are not the message itself.  I agree with Gladwell in that its people who will be the catalyst of any future change.  And most social media “pundits” will agree, too.

What social media does is allow more people to become involved.  And when more people are connected, then the chances of identifying people who can help spread the message is increased.  And that’s the power of social media:  it’s people driven.  Just like the next social movement.

I would love to know what you think. Feel free to comment below.

  • GB

    “Social media tools are mediums for the message.”

    “And that’s the power of social media: it’s people driven.”

    If the medium is people-driven, and is indeed the agent for social change … then from that perspective the medium IS the message after all.

    In other words – Gladwell was close, but McLuhan was (and continues to be) the one who got it right.

    • Hey TNHG,

      Thanks for your comments. While the medium may be the message in some instances I have to disagree with you here. The message in Iran was, among other things, freedom. Is Twitter freedom? I don’t think so.

  • Sean Boulton

    You only have to look at the incredible success of initiatives like Twitchange to see that, while social media won’t change society in and of itself, it can be an incredible vehicle for facilitating change within society. As already noted, the medium.

    • Sean,

      Great point. There are also initiatives like Twestival and Tweetsgiving too. The folks at Artez could also show us the benefits of social media for charities and non profits.

      kk

  • I have to ask:

    If all social media sites were turned off (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Tumblr all died) would you still talk to people? I agree in a sense that social media is made up of a few strong ties because I can count on two hands the number of ppl I have in my phone book/address book/BBM that I would still talk to.

    At the same time, I believe the revolution will be tweeted. It will be tweeted, foursquared, liked (or fanned if you are old school FB) and podcasted. The revolution will ask you to share, to argue, to muse on things as a group. Collaboratively. It will ask you to erase country boarders, language barriers, and discrimination against race. We will become more opinionated because let’s face it, it’s easy to hide behind a computer screen then to voice your opinion face-to-face for most of the world.

    Oh yes the revolution will be tweeted. But the question is will it last? What comes after this? Is it too much?

    • Alisaan,

      I can’t believe that I have yet to respond to your comment till now. Biz just posted a response to Malcolm Gladwell in The Atlantic, i think it was. He seems to have taken the same viewpoint as you.