Malcolm Gladwell is an author used to being in the eye of storms. It’s usually about his books, and the way the ‘insights’ in those books excite people; his ‘Tipping Point’ is now as much a concept in human behaviour as the ‘Peter Principle’ is. It’s usually a gushing storm of uncritical admiration. Not so this time.
His article for the New Yorker (a small, elite magazine) critical of social media has caused quite a storm, but with most of it quite unpleasant to him. For instead of gushing at his ‘wisdom’, quite a lot are now questioning it.
While I encourage you to read his well-argued article here, here’s a very short summary. He contrasts the Twitter-based ‘revolutions’ in Moldova and Iran with the Civil Rights Movement of the USA, and argues that a loose network of people does not have the power to force meaningful change in the way a strong hierarchical organisation can.
Having read his article, and some of the criticism to it, I am casting my vote for Gladwell. I buy his general thesis. Having seen some of the ‘revolutions’ that Facebook & Twitter were going to bring, my scepticism lines me up strongly behind him.
‘Meter Jam’ is a favourite punching bag of mine. It demanded people to make a substantive sacrifice on the appointed day – to give up riding in autorickshaws. The ‘activists’, all of them, were happy to ‘like’ the Facebook page and follow the Twitter page; that in fact was the definition of activism in this cause. They posted rickshaw-bashing status updates and tweets. A few passionate ones chose buses, trains or their own feet as alternatives when D-day came. The rest simply clambered into the first free rickshaw.
Another favourite is ‘Pink Chaddi’, but for positive reasons. The ‘activists’ had to sign up for the page, and then mail pink underwear to the object of hate. Several did, the campaign was dubbed a success. It brings to mind the old truism that ‘nothing unites people better than the hatred of a common enemy’. And these two campaigns offer perfect confirming examples for the Gladwell’s thesis.
Gladwell argues that a social network is ideal for a ‘cause’ that requires little sacrifice, but has a huge payoff in terms of feel-good and positive reputation. ‘Pink chaddi’ fits well, a tiny expense which paid off with the humiliation of a commonly reviled foe. He also argues that a network of loose contacts fails when substantive sacrifice is required; which is why ‘Meter Jam’ failed.