by Tim Adams
The bestselling author of The Tipping Point has enraged social network users by dismissing their impact on real issues
Social networks, those loose, busy and self-absorbing communities of Facebookers and Twitterers, have always invited analogies from the insect world. If we are to accept the most common of them, then in the past week, Malcolm Gladwell, provocateur-in-chief at the New Yorker magazine, has poked a sharp stick into the online ants' nest. The twitterers have responded to his provocation by swarming on to blogs and websites to protect their uniting belief: that the future belongs to them.
Gladwell is a spirited contrarian. His argument in the New Yorker was an attack on the prevalent idea that online social networks represent the future of campaigning and protest, and perhaps – in totalitarian states – of revolution. The bestselling author of The Tipping Point unpicked this notion with typical chutzpah, moving quickly from emotive and carefully selected individual case studies to sweeping universal principles.
Gladwell examined the most effective mass protest of modern times – the American civil rights movement. Using an account of the courageous coffee bar sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, he argued that such activism was based on the strength of intimate friendships and shared experience, and directed by hierarchical power, could never have arisen from the "weak ties" and "horizontal" associations that characterise the campaigning of online "friends" and "followers".
"Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that [Martin Luther] King's task in Birmingham, Alabama, would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail," Gladwell argued.
"But [online] networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterises Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where 98% of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed – discipline and strategy – were things that online social media cannot provide."
As an example of the comparative ineffectiveness of wiki-activism Gladwell cited the virtual support groups that arose at the height of the civil war in western Sudan. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition had 1,282,339 members, he noted, before detailing, with a flourish, the financial commitment of those "protesters" to their cause: an average of 15 cents each.
From this and other anecdotes Gladwell drew the following conclusion: that while social networks may be useful for some communication – to alert like-minded acquaintances to social events, or to solve a specific "weak tie" problem, such as the location of a bone marrow donor – they do not promote the passionate collective engagement that causes individuals to make commitments that result in social change. Facebook "likers", he argued, are not sitters-in or nonviolent activists, they are not even marchers or candle-wavers; they may wish to associate themselves with a protest app, but the nature of their medium means they do so with negligible risk and therefore negligible effect.
"The evangelists of social media," he concluded, "seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend. Social networks are effective at increasing participation – by lessening the motivation that participation requires. In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice."
To many of the anonymously outraged, this was fighting talk. "Cynic" in a long and vitriolic thread on the rival Atlantic Monthly website, argued that while "once a group of local activists might have placed notices in the local paper, today, it tweets. There are important changes implicit in this transition to be sure. Organisations have a much easier time in reaching broader publics… They can enlist a huge number of people to perform small tasks, that in aggregate add up to large accomplishments."
Gladwell had reserved much of his ire for Clay Shirky, the charismatic New York University evangelist of the power of online crowds, and author of the seminal social media text Here Comes Everybody. Shirky, Gladwell argued, had oversold the potential of wiki-activism as a tool for social transformation.
When I contacted Shirky to wonder what he made of the broadside, he suggested that his principle response was mystification. "What a weird article it was," Shirky said. "It started out with two unobjectionable observations: danger requires political activists to be strongly committed to each other, not just to the cause; and that people talked a lot of shit about Twitter during the green uprising [last year's demonstrations in Iran, which were claimed by some as evidence of the power of virtual communication]. That put him in a position to talk about how strong and weak ties, or hierarchies and networks, actually relate to each other in protest movements, but instead he seems to have committed himself to the idea that they don't, that social networks are useless for spreading the 'fever' he was talking about, or for recruiting those who had caught the 'fever'."
Oddest of all, Shirky suggested was that "the book that has done most to explain to the public how weak ties could spread the kind of political fever that Gladwell writes about is The Tipping Point". If this all sounds like an internecine battle in Manhattan media elites, there is a wider context. The New Yorker, for which Gladwell is a stellar correspondent, sees itself as the spiritual home of a kind of reading and writing and engagement that could seem threatened by the attention overload and surface concerns of online skimming. I spoke to Gladwell a while back about his use of computers: he never spent much time on the internet, he said: "I run out of things to look up really quickly." By making the apparently counter-intuitive argument that social media will be of little use in changing society, Gladwell seems to be advancing a more general scepticism about technological communication: the risk-free kinds of relationship that technology promotes are the antithesis of genuine complex human interaction.
New Yorker editor David Remnick argued recently that "as long as I'm there, we are not going to change who we are, no matter what the delivery systems are, no matter what the means of reading us. We are about reading. We're about long-form journalism… a sense of delight, a sense of seriousness when it's appropriate. [We will not] give away these core things because in the short term we think, 'Wow, you know, actually [the future is] three-paragraph long pieces, the hell with doing 15,000 words on American politics, or sending somebody to Afghanistan three times to get the story…'"
In an – ironic – online forum that followed the furore he had created, Gladwell argued last Thursday that what drove him crazy about "the digerati" was that they "refuse to accept the fact that there is a class of social problems for which there is no technological solution.
"Look, technology is going to solve the energy problem. I'm convinced of it. But technology does not and cannot change the underlying dynamics of 'human' problems: it does not make it easier to love or to motivate or to dream or convince."
In an argument that will run and run, he seemed to be inverting the wisdom of a social theorist from a previous age: the message is not only about the medium.
Twitter: First tweet sent by co-founder Jack Dorsey, March 21, 2006.
New Yorker: First issue launched by founding editor Harold Ross in 1925.
T: 106 million users and over 180m unique visits to the Twitter webpage each month.
NY: Sells just over 1m issues weekly. In US, website averages 1,130,000 unique visits monthly.
T: With 6.5m followers Lady Gaga, pictured, most popular tweeter. Others include Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Fry.
NY: Past contributors include Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, JD Salinger, John Updike and James Thurber.
T: A maximum of 140 characters.
NY: John Hersey's 31,000-word-long 1946 article on Hiroshima took up an entire issue.
T: The US Library of Congress catalogues every tweet.
NY: Has won 52 national magazine awards.
T: Top news events of 2009 were the Iran election, swine flu and Gaza.
NY: Recent topics include the Tea Party, Tibet's future and prison camps in Siberia.