Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong


Malcolm Gladwell is once again stirring controversy on the Internets with an article in The New Yorker magazine in which he sets out to debunk the notion that social media will transform social activism. Lots of people are taking issue with Gladwell's piece, as he surely hoped, and I am adding my voice to the chorus: Malcolm Gladwell, you naughty intellectual imp, you are totally and utterly wrong.

That said, ironically I agree with what I believe to be Gladwell's real argument: most of us are selfish and self-absorbed, and social networks probably won't change that. But in typical fashion Gladwell erects a whole theoretical structure in an attempt to show that this is somehow a particular flaw of online social networks, rather than just part of human nature. And this is wrong because it discounts the possibility that social networks could be used to catalyze and organize real activism -- provided that people care enough.

Gladwell begins by asserting that online social networks are largely characterized by superficial, low-intensity bonds between people who often don't really know each other. These indifferent connections, he argues, don't provide sufficient motivation for people to engage in the kind of dangerous, high-risk activism that can brave violence to actually overcome entrenched social injustice -- like civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather, he says, people were (and are) usually recruited into genuine high-risk activism by close friends and relatives. In support of this, he cites the work of Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, who examined the social connections of civil rights activists in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 and found that most of the ones who stuck it out had close friends who were also participating, while those who dropped out were less likely to have a close personal connection to the cause.

Gladwell may be correct that "High-risk activism... is a 'strong-tie' phenomenon," but he is far too sweeping in his statement that "The platforms of social media are built around weak ties." Sure, there are plenty of people with Facebook friends they've never met, but they're also likely to be Facebook friends with their spouses, children, parents, siblings and friends. In other words, social networks are whatever people make of them, and therefore tend to be composed of a mix of high-intensity and low-intensity links, "real" relationships mixed in with superficial ones.

Gladwell also argues that "Social networks are effective at increasing participation -- by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires." And again, he may be right: getting people to "show support" for a cause is easy enough when you just have to click "Like," rather than, say, put your life on the line. He points to the example of various Facebook groups devoted to Darfur, noting that the average financial contribution of members to one group (with over a million members) is $0.09. "In other words," Gladwell writes, "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. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro."

But we are also a long way from Darfur: what, I wonder, would Gladwell have the Darfur activists do? For one thing, the implied comparison of the U.S. South in the 1950s and 1960s and present-day Darfur is way, way off-base. Yes, the South was a very dangerous place for civil rights activists, who acted bravely to change an intolerant society at great personal risk to themselves. But while opposition was entrenched and sometimes violent, most Southern whites disapproved of vigilante violence against civil rights activists -- a fact which strategists like Martin Luther King, Jr. used to successfully drive a wedge between hardcore and moderate segregationists. Civil rights activists also had sympathetic supporters in other parts of the country, including presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a majority of the Supreme Court. By contrast, in Darfur whole villages have been exterminated by their neighbors with the help of the government in a combined civil war and genocide. By most estimates, several hundred people were killed for participating in the civil rights movement; meanwhile perhaps 300,000 people have died in Darfur as a result of violence, displacement, and malnutrition.

This goes to the heart of Gladwell's argument that online activism (Sudan, now) can't compare to the real, old-fashioned kind (U.S. South, 1950s) -- because the two test cases selected by Gladwell are in fact not at all comparable. The situation in Darfur is so unbelievably, unrelentingly brutal that even the most stoic civil rights activist would probably think twice about challenging the janjaweed with non-violent resistance out in the Sudanese desert; there is no civil disobedience without civilization. By the same token, Darfur doesn't come close to the U.S. civil rights movement in terms of sheer emotional intensity, for the obvious reason that the latter was much closer to home. This certainly may reflect the high-intensity, low-intensity dynamic set forth by Gladwell, as most Americans probably don't have any personal connections to Darfur, but I don't really see what is has to do with social media as an activist tool. Put another way, if Gladwell doesn't see many examples of truly effective social media activism at work in contemporary American society, is this because social media aren't up the challenge, or simply because nothing has yet inspired Americans to take up social media for a cause, the way civil rights galvanized the country?

I also have to take issue with the basic assumption that "low-intensity," diffuse, and impersonal activist support isn't really meaningful. Again, just look at the civil rights movement: while only about 1,000 activists participated in the Freedom Summer in 1964, and a similar number took part in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, how many Americans were influenced watching these events on TV? And of these, how many voted for politicians who supported civil rights? Would we call this support insignificant, despite their lack of close personal connections to activists in harm's way? Today's online social networks are updated, interactive versions of TV: in addition to influencing opinion, they allow ordinary people to register their support and see just how many other people agree with them. Maybe this isn't activism per se -- but is it meaningless? Indeed, while individual activists may be recruited through high-intensity bonds, success may depend on aggregating huge numbers of individuals to express just the kind of low-intensity support that Gladwell disdains -- a purpose for which social media are, as he admits, admirably well-suited.

Observing that civil rights activism was disciplined and hierarchical, Gladwell also argues that social networks -- with their flat, egalitarian, or "horizontal" structures -- aren't capable of making decisions or executing them in an orderly fashion. In short, trying to get people to agree on goals and cooperate is like herding cats (my words, not his). Networks, in his words, are "the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies." But this is a false opposition: why can't a network, connecting individuals to each other, also become or give rise to a hierarchy, in which superiors organize subordinates to achieve a common goal?

Once again, Gladwell is confusing the way most people happen to use social media now, as a casual pastime with no serious purpose, with its real but unrealized potential as an unprecedented means for organizing huge numbers of people -- if those people really care about an issue. On that note, there is no doubt in my mind that in the right circumstances a charismatic leader with an inspiring cause could use social media to create the sort of hierarchical, disciplined organization Gladwell envisions... and with a speed and scale that would leave previous activists awestruck.

23 comments about "Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong".
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  1. Ellen Scordato from The Stonesong Press, LLC, October 5, 2010 at 4:02 p.m.

    "in the right circumstances a charismatic leader with an inspiring cause could use social media to create the sort of hierarchical, disciplined organization Gladwell envisions... and with a speed and scale that would leave previous activists awestruck"

    1. Who would let them? Can you imagine any government or power structure allowing social networks to be used in this way? Why do you think China is so harsh on internet freedoms?

    2. This is a double-edged sword. Historically, mass populist movements usually tend more toward Burn the Witches! than Free the Slaves. "Popular Delusion and the Madness of Crowds" still seems a fairly relevant work.

  2. Jason Baer from Convince & Convert, October 5, 2010 at 4:03 p.m.

    Incredibly fantastic post Erik. I had the same reaction when I read Gladwell's piece. You know why the activism back then was deeper? Because THERE WAS NO OTHER OPTION. Gladwell has confused cause and effect in this piece. It makes a good conversation starter, but his logic is all wrong this time.

  3. Ted Nelson from M E C H A N I C A, October 5, 2010 at 4:35 p.m.

    Hilarious headline! If only your counter argument were nearly as potent. I'm still in Gladwell's camp, a place I rarely find myself. It seems you miss the biggest point, and the subtext of the article, which is that of relative impact, that is, the ability for a given movement to break through the background noise, and command attention and action. When it's easy to make a lot of noise, we all make lots of easy noise, and we also tend to tune/filter out a lot of it. Versus during the Civil Rights movement where a relatively small organized action could really get on the national radar. Overall, I'd say strong-ties trump weak ties, even lots of weak ties. I'll borrow a phrase from Adam Gopnick to sum this one up: "The impotence of abundance." -- Ted Nelson, CEO, Mechanica

  4. Gary Kreissman from Group PRM, October 5, 2010 at 4:42 p.m.

    I'm coming down on Gladwell's side. I'd liken social media interaction versus "live" activism to the difference between lead generation and sales. Social is a good initial recruiting (prospecting) tool to alert people with a range of interest levels about an event, a product or a movement. But interest translates into action in only a small fraction of cases. Social can be an extremely effective first step toward activism or product purchase, but it should not be confused with commitment.

  5. Eric Scoles from brand cool marketing, October 5, 2010 at 4:50 p.m.

    I always find it fascinating when people manage to get completely different interpretations from the same piece.

    For example, you, Erik Sass, read this Gladwell piece and see it as a strong statement that it's impossible for Twitter/Facebook/[insert social media platform here] to have a "meaningful" effect. I just don't see that contention in the Gladwell piece. As I read it, he's making some basic assertions that you actually agree with -- and that's pretty much it. I just don't see support for anything more extensive in that article.

    That having been said, I have that experience with Gladwell pieces a lot. He seems to be a tabula rasa: People read into his arguments the thing that annoys them most.

    This piece does not in fact argue that there's nothing revolutionary about social media. What it does argue is that the nature of the medium has implications for the nature of the revolution.

    What's interesting to me is what's NOT said: That these weak-linking "activism" networks are much more prone to manipulation than person to person networks (which are slower and require more non-automated interpersonal interactions).

    Another thing left out: Clay shirky's friend got her phone back in no small part because she was Clay Shirky's friend. We get told all the time that technology levels playing fields -- what it really does is reshuffle them. Continuously. If you know how to play on continuously recontoured fields, you can play in the new world, but the game is no more fair than it ever was, it's just different. If you've got the juice, you can get your sidekick back or googlewhack 'purple monkey dishrag' or get a half million people to 'like' your 'safe darfur' page. If you don't -- tough. There is no meritocracy -- or rather, there is, but the _merit_ is how well you play the network game, as it exists here and now in late 2010.

  6. John Coulbourn from Ipswich River Media, October 5, 2010 at 5:50 p.m.

    ...and I always suspected the story that Twitter played any role in the student revolution in Iran. It doesnt have that power here and we have lots of smartphones and hi-speed nets for them. Nice myth though.

  7. Marianne Allison from Waggener Edstrom, October 5, 2010 at 6:31 p.m.

    I agree with Gladwell, and in fact I think he is doing what he is REALLY good at, which is to make a compelling argument for the insight available to us at the end of our very nose. So I am surprised to not see people criticizing the article not with "Wrong, Wrong, Wrong," but with, "Duh?"

    I think we are often guilty of a bias toward the present, as if "social" engagement as an art form has been introduced to us fools courtesy of this generation and this set of tools. God how did anybody mobilize ANYBODY? It's just about relationships. I think a really well orchestrated movement WILL take advantage of social media, but it will know that there are friends, and then there are FRIENDS--there are followers, and then there are DISCIPLES, and you will touch them differently, expect more of them.

    If I read Gladwell, I just hear him saying, you can get a lot out of social networks. But if you want to get people to lay their lives on the line for a cause, you'd better have a much deeper engagement strategy than a "like button" or "RT this."

  8. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, October 5, 2010 at 6:33 p.m.

    Gladwell's example of the North Carolina lunch counter protests and how they grew and spread demonstrates that activism is inherently social and is spread from peer to peer. Social Media just takes this process and makes it more "slippery" and more easily spread. Today, the first few students at the lunch counter would have gone on Facebook or Twitter mid-protest, and would have build a movement spontaneously, as opposed to over a week's time. Does that mean it "changes" activism? Not my mind it just makes it more real time.

  9. Ted Rubin from The Rubin Organization / Return on Relationship, October 5, 2010 at 8:26 p.m.

    I Agree, Agree, Agree!

  10. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, October 5, 2010 at 8:51 p.m.

    Nice try. First you say social media are mostly self-absorbed, and then you follow that with "the possibility that social networks could be used to catalyze and organize real activism -- provided that people care enough"

    C'mon, you can't have it both ways. How can people who are self-absorbed (your words) also "care enough" (again, your words)?

    And since when does "could" carry much weight? You "could" be right. But don't count on it.

  11. Erik Sass from none, October 5, 2010 at 9:33 p.m.

    I could be right because people who are self-absorbed now could change their minds in the future, if some sufficiently inspiring cause should arise. Then they could use social media to organize themselves for a serious purpose, whereas now they just use it to goof off. The operative word here, of course, is "could."

  12. Eric Broyles from megree, Inc., October 5, 2010 at 11:35 p.m.

    People can become more engaged even with "loose ties" driving the engagement if people can discover an actual connection to the people being helped. Also, social networks are revealing overlapping relationships between and among people that may alter what is considered "loose tie" or "strong tie." Understanding why certain people have overlapping relationships may be more informative than a declaration that this person is close to me.

  13. Mary Martin from Asherdrake Publishing Inc., October 6, 2010 at 12:04 a.m.

    I agree with Gary and Gladwell: "I'm coming down on Gladwell's side. ... interest translates into action in only a small fraction of cases. Social can be an extremely effective first step toward activism or product purchase, but it should not be confused with commitment."

    I could not have said it better.

    A survey of my friends (in person) and we agree, we are not people to take anything online very seriously even between our group. It's too removed. Whereas, in person in the closeness of a room or one-on-one on the phone there is a different "connection" that is far more compelling, intimate and likely to arose "revolutionary" response :)

  14. Mike Mcgrath from RealXstream PTY LTD, October 6, 2010 at 5:32 a.m.

    This article is very well timed for me personally becasue I am in the process of trying out an Idea for how Facebook can help address world poverty one connection at a time.
    As a social media entrepreneur I have spent much of the last 18 months in India working on a start-up business with a software developent team here.
    I accidentaly took interest in the story of a physically challenged beggar here called Nasim. 27 year old Nasim has a very sad life. I wanted to help Nasim but I struggled with 2 things:
    1) How could I know that Nasim's story is true and that he is not infact living a life of luxury as many scpetics of beggrs like to beleive
    2) There are so many other people here living below the povery line and they all deserve to be helped also.
    To address the first issue I decided to visit Nasim's family home and varify his life story personally. The second issue was very simple to solve> "think locally act globally". You cant save the world but in this particular instance there is no getting away from the fact that you can change the life of this one person

    and suraoundings. I hope to be able to help Nasim by through social networking and I have the vaguest hope that by doint so, we might start a new trend...
    The plan is this: Create a Facebook account for nasim, teach him the basics and friend him. Arange to make regular micropayments directly from my bank acount to his via PayPal or some other method. (No middle man, no charity, no administration costs) Encourage but not force Nasim to go to school or to better himself in a way of his choosing. Encourage Nasim to share his life's progress on FB.
    Ask social network to add to this fund for Nasim with the hope that my personal connection to Nasim will validate his story in some way.
    Finally encourage other travellers here that use FB to share their experiences while overseas and that have experienced this level of poverty in person to consider researching another homeless persons life story and consider trying this approach themselves.

  15. Matt Batten, October 6, 2010 at 7:20 p.m.

    Erik finishes his well argued point with:
    "...there is no doubt in my mind that in the right circumstances a charismatic leader with an inspiring cause could use social media to create the sort of hierarchical, disciplined organization Gladwell envisions... and with a speed and scale that would leave previous activists awestruck."

    I daresay the social media juggernaut of Obama's election campaign to be the first African American US president comes close.

  16. Jerry Johnson from Brodeur, October 6, 2010 at 8:41 p.m.

    I've never read some one being called a "naughty intellectual imp" before. Almost makes me want to be one. You should have stopped at the unassailable premise: that humans are the same today as they were before social media. Social media makes us more aware. It can even make it easier for us to send a donation via Pay Pal. But I don't see any evidence that it makes us care any more today than we did yesterday.

  17. Jean Renard from TRM Inc., October 7, 2010 at 4:35 a.m.

    There is a danger that the increasingly short attention span of the average human, might think "liking" something on FaceBook actually does something deep and profound and that is is in fact a step in the right direction, when it is nothing at all.

    The activism of the past required some attention span or in today;s parlance "bandwidth" which we have none.

  18. Bert Shlensky from stretchandcover , October 8, 2010 at 8:29 a.m.

    Gladwelll misses the point by focusing on a narrow spectrum of social media . The reality is cell phones, social media , I pads, the internet , cable tv, and other new and faster media have dramatically incresed the speed and frequency of communication . Where and how it goes who knows . But we do see the results of some viral campaigns, Obama and other political fund raising, the rise of people like Glen Beck, leaking of private documents , etc. .

  19. Roger Toennis from Liquid Media LLC, October 9, 2010 at 12:55 a.m.

    Social media is a very new and unusual "power tool" that no one yet has figured out how to to turn on and operate.

    But make no mistake, it's a power tool that when activated properly and in the right context will, as Erik says, " create the sort of hierarchical, disciplined organization Gladwell envisions... and with a speed and scale that would leave previous activists awestruck".

    The movement I think needs to happen most is a "save/recover our American system of public education" movement. Without an educated populace a country heads quickly to a "Gladwell-esque" "tipping point" that accelerates that society to third world status.

    I unfortunately envision a likely future for my kids where they feel they have to emigrate to other countries for a better life in the same manner their ancestors did 150 years ago when they left Europe for America.

  20. Linda Ziskind from Z2 Consulting, LLC, October 9, 2010 at 4:56 p.m.

    Eric, I'm glad you wrote about this. The article's been bothering me since I read it a few days ago. I usually like Gladwell's pieces and I'm curious how he got this so wrong. It actually feels a little like knee-jerk contrarianism.

    The point that Gladwell (and many of the other commenters to this post) missed is that (here's a "duh" for you, Marianne) social media works differently than real life. I participated in the anti-vietnam war rallies in 1969 and 1970. They were organized through "real life" networks of political organizations, word of mouth in college dorms, and friend to friend. Despite Gladwell's claim to the contrary, these were mostly loose tie networks. The big difference was, because we were only aware of the dozens of people in our immediate group and the first layer of connection outside it, no one had a real sense of our aggregate numbers. We needed to all physically be in the same place, at the same time in order to make our numbers and our commitment visible to us and to the outside world.

    But today, we can spread the word, coalesce over a cause, and effect change, without ever getting up from our desk or out of our PJs.

    Remember the Twitter Motrin Moms? On Saturday, Nov. 15,2008, Motrin put an ad on its website that was voiced-over by a young mom, who talked about the "fashion" of carrying your baby in a wearable sling; that it was "supposedly" a good bonding experience; and that schlepping the baby around this way made them look "crazy."

    Online moms who saw the ad went ballistic. How dare some young-guy copy-writer imply that they wear slings to be "fashionable," or that they look crazy? As PR-wiz Peter Shankman said, "Motrin happened to mess up at the expense, and in the face of, one of the most vocal, quickest-to-blog, “strongest-to-band-together-and-form-one-opinion-like-the-Borg” collectives out there – The Mommy-Blogging community.

    The motrin mommy tweeters and bloggers began alerting their loose tie groups. By Saturday evening, the motrin ad was the biggest topic on Twitter, along with the hashtag, #motrinmoms. By Sunday there was a 9 minute video on YouTube showing the angry mom Tweets, along with pictures of moms with babies in sings. And by Sunday night J&J, Mortin's parent company, took the ad down.

    And there you have it - loose ties, aggregating and collaborating for a common cause, acting and achieving results. All done on Twitter.

  21. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, October 12, 2010 at 9:05 p.m.

    I think everyone took different views out of Malcom's brilliant article. I agree Social is weak bonds. Doesn't mean they have no value. But it is a fact its mostly weak bonds. You took umbrage on his activism comparisons. I think Malcom's point was Social Media's influence on events has been over-hyped as the key point. And I agree with him on that. Most people in Iran don't have Twitter. And its nice that the ones that did were able to get tweets out. But it didn't affect the out come of events. I think Social Media was much more a success for fund raising than social activism. As much as BP got beat up for the Gulf Spill, I saw plenty of Tweeted photos of cars getting gas from them around the country.

    I think Malcom had 2 goals. To prove the weak bonds and over hype (done) and to get everyone who has been drinking the Social Media Kool Aid to freak out (done).

  22. Rosie Siman from 360i, October 19, 2010 at 8:36 p.m.

    @Jason Baer - I totally agree!

    @Erik Sass - Thanks for writing this.

    I think that while slightly obvious, it's also important to note that we're all different! While there's common overlap, there are many ways to use social media platforms, just as there are many ways to interact with social causes.

    As a millennial/digital native, I don't consider it a "fact" that my network is built on loose ties. In fact, I'd say my network of friends is full of strong ties- Full of people I'd invite over for dinner or introduce to my parents.

    Social media has absolutely inspired me to be a part of social causes. Previously, I had to write a check to support a cause. To me, checks are as outdated as fax machines or cassette tapes - I'm not sure why anyone would use them. To be able to donate through Kickstarter (Amazon Payments) or PayPal, a brand talking to me has just increased their liklihood that I'll donate by ~50%.

    Furthermore, social media lets me feel like I've really connected with these causes that I feel strongly about. Instead of writing a check or giving cash, I can follow the story on platforms that I use on a daily basis!


  23. Adam Hartung from spark partners, November 15, 2010 at 11:43 a.m.

    Malcolm Gladwell never lets ignorance get in the way of his writing. I was thunderstruck when he wrote "Tipping Point" and so many people read it! Malcolm had no background in business, or marketing, or sociology. He just had an idea that things hit a tipping point, so he made up a theory about how that might work. Turns out his theory was wildly wrong, and his stories were merely that - stories. Bad book, bad theory and really of no value to anyone.

    And with Blink! he convinced people they didn't need to do any research. No need to accumulate and analyze data. Just "go with your gut." Convenient how he reinforces what lazy thinkers want to believe. And in just a few hundred words! We can all quit trying to be Einstein - you just need good instincts (and who doesn't have those?)

    Or, in "Outliers" Malcolm convinces his readers that if they practice enough they can become wildly successful - the world's best - at anything. Horatio Alger applied again and again. Only how many young boys have shot millions of basketballs without ever coming close to the NBA, much less becoming Michael Jordan? How many aspiring musicians practiced instruments for thousands of hours only to never get close to a recording contract? There's a lot more to success than just practicing a lot - although we don't want to believe it. And that's where Malcolm shines - reinforcing what most people want to believe. Even if it's not true.

    People started paying him thousands of dollars to give talks. Like some sort of "common sense maven," people started believing Malcolm had insight where no one else could make sense. His stories were keen, and his ideas seemed practical -- and above all they reinforced deeply held beliefs and assumptions in the populace. Malcolm reinforced what people wanted to believe. Whether it was true, or not.

    But there are experts in the fields where he writes. People who study the behavior of markets, and social interactions. People who put thousands of case examples to the test, trying to see if there is a real pattern. Folks who accumulate years of data, and analyze it, looking for how things really do work. Malcolm doesn't bother with this rigor - he simply invents a theory and goes with it. Like he has some idea what he's talking about. Experts "be damned."

    Malcolm is what we call a charlatan. He makes things up that he figures will make readers feel better. He says what he hopes people will buy. Then he proselytizes it like his insights are biblical. And because so many people want to believe - now that the web and social networks really aren't as important as they seem, for example - they flock to him.

    Malcolm is wrong far more often than right. In fact, he's downright dangerous, because he reinforces false notions about how things work. He promotes ignorance. I don't understand how he's charmed the folks at the New Yorker, or all those buyers of his ridiculously over-simplified and almost completely wrong books he's sold. But it's important that his crap be revealed for just that - and those with real understanding given the chance to educate.

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