Is Malcolm Gladwell Wrong About Twitter?

Debating the social network's revolutionary capacity

This article is from the archive of our partner .

In this week's New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell argues against the idea that social media services like Twitter and Facebook can spur revolutionary change. He compares the civil rights activism of the '50s and '60s to modern examples of successful social networking collaboration. To Gladwell, the difference between traditional activism and online media organizing is this:

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That's why you can have a thousand "friends" on Facebook, as you never could in real life... 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...

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 ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham--discipline and strategy--were things that online social media cannot provide.

He goes on to argue that revolutions require top-down, hierarchical leadership. Decentralized social networks are hard to quash. But they aren't good at getting people to make big sacrifices. Is Gladwell right? Here are the commentators pushing back against his ideas:

  • Sure, Social Networks Can't Accomplish Everything--But They're At Least Helpful, writes Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution:
The point is well-taken but still activism of some kinds should go up. Loose ties favor campaigns to get out the vote and sign petitions; those developments can bring about many positive changes. Most unsettled issues in American politics today would not be well-served by organizing less cooperative confrontations, even if you perceive a great injustice. I believe that "making the existing social order" more efficient, to use Gladwell's phrase, is positively correlated with many desirable reforms, as are the qualities of "resilience" and "adaptability." If we look at the recent experience in Iran, web mobilization seems to have encouraged -- not discouraged -- people from risking their lives for a cause. Is the web doing much to help the worst African dictators or the totalitarians in North Korea? Not so many data are in, but so far I score this one for Shirky [a social media evangelist].

I think Mr Gladwell misses a number of crucial things. One mistake is to assume that social media merely increases weak ties. In my experience, it strengthens ties generally. Networks like Twitter and Facebook reduce the cost of minor interactions, which leads to more minor interactions. Mr Gladwell sees this and notes the rise in minor interactions between thousands of quasi-friends. What he misses is that repeated minor actions are also the means by which stronger relationships are kept strong. These platforms make it easier to maintain friendships through trying times and circumstances.

Another of his errors comes from downplaying the significance of resilience and redundance. The problem with a hierarchical system is that it breaks easily and catastrophically. If its leader makes a mistake or is somehow neutralised, the movement suffers a crucial blow. Networks, on the other hand, are bottom-up enterprises. They're very difficult to shut-down or break.

  • Gladwell Is at Least Correct in One Way, writes Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic: "I think we can read Gladwell's piece as a fairly specific indictment of the current uses of the current generation of tools. Truth is, very few major activism projects succeed through Facebook or Twitter. Shirky would totally agree with that, I think. And in cases where they seem to have helped, it's quite difficult to quantify how much, if at all. The explicit compare-and-contrast with Birmingham and the broader civil rights movement throws the possibility that we're diminishing and deracinating activism into stark relief, and I think that's a good thing."
  • He Overstates His Case, writes Ben Popper at The New York Observer: "Gladwell is right that a lot of the rhetoric around social media activism is inflated and self serving. But he's wrong to imply that a network of weak ties can't accomplish serious change. One could argue, for example, that social media played a crucial role in electing our first black president, a historic moment in our nation's struggle for equality."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.