Egypt Protests Prove Malcolm Gladwell Wrong, Wrong, Wrong


OMG, this is such a burn for Malcolm Gladwell.

It's one thing to write a lengthy think piece in the New Yorker explaining why social media will never play a significant role in "real" social activism (contradicting conventional wisdom in intriguing, highly marketable fashion). It's another thing to be self-evidently, embarrassingly wrong in this assertion. But to be actually proven wrong in spectacular fashion by historic events which no one can ignore, occurring just a few months later -- well that's just funny.

The huge protests which have rocked the North African nations of Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt over the last couple weeks are obviously noteworthy for reasons besides proving Gladwell wrong: in Egypt -- the largest country in the Arab world and a key U.S. ally -- they represent the first significant threat to Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship in decades. But they also provide illuminating examples of the role social media can play in organizing and carrying out mass protests.



According to The New York Times, Twitter and Facebook have both played a central role in propagating the protests, which began in Tunisia but then quickly spread across national borders to Algeria and now Egypt. In one typical development, Facebook groups dedicated to victims of police repression have also become focal points for organizing new demonstrations, while mobile access to Facebook and Twitter has obviously played a key role. Indeed, the sudden, collective nature of these technology-enabled popular outbursts gives them something in the character of "flash mobs" (with the emphasis on "mobs").

All this directly contradicts (and disproves) Gladwell's thesis of a few months back. Gladwell argued that online social networks, with their large proportion of superficial or marginal relationships characterized by "low-intensity" emotional bonds, can't serve to catalyze real confrontation with the forces of injustice, with its attendant risk of personal injury and death. Gladwell noted that you only put yourself in harm's way for your loved ones, and concluded on this basis that social networks -- awash in fake friends who don't really know or care about each other -- are really only good for the kind of "click 'Like' to save the whales" activism which frankly doesn't get much done.

There were, of a course, a number of obvious flaws in Gladwell's argument. First and most importantly, social networks aren't composed solely of superficial relationships; your best friends, siblings and parents are probably on their too. Second, it was unhistorical: because he hadn't seen evidence of social media playing a role in "real" activism in the less than ten years it's been around, Gladwell concluded that it can't and never will play such a role. Third, he looked for social media leading to violent confrontation with injustice in the U.S., where there (thankfully) aren't any major causes which inspire this kind of extreme action.

In North Africa, by contrast, young people are being brutalized by police working for oppressive dictatorships; many are being injured, and some are being killed. And social media is definitely in the mix: if there's still any doubt about its potential as a tool for social activism, consider the fact that Egypt's government has paid it the highest compliment yet by shutting down Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to squash the protests.

26 comments about "Egypt Protests Prove Malcolm Gladwell Wrong, Wrong, Wrong".
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  1. Adam Hartung from spark partners, January 26, 2011 at 6:22 p.m.

    Malcolm Gladwell never did any research for any of his books, or "think pieces." He just thinks up ideas that seem common-sense, and propagates them as verifiable. Everyone would like to think that there's a "tipping point" for a business. Everyone would like to think their first reactions are mostly right and instant "blink" decisions are good. We'd like to think that all you have to do is practice enough and you can be the very best. Only none of it is true. Just as he was proven wrong regarding social media. He is nothing more than a modern-day Elmer Gantry.

  2. Langston Richardson from Cisco, January 26, 2011 at 6:24 p.m.

    While it's fashionable for Social Media professionals to line up and prove a person like Malcolm Gladwell wrong, to give the entire factor Social Media as the reasons that started and fuels the revolt in the Arab Republic of Egypt is equally wrong and ignores the dynamic of history. Unlike the frivolity of typical western social media, the often brutal worlds of non-western worlds shows that connects people had before the world even had an internet was the driving force that caused and fueled the uprising. The Twitters and Facebooks enabled pre-existing tensions. They in no way caused them.

  3. S Gano from HIE Holdings Inc, January 26, 2011 at 6:37 p.m.


    I don't think anybody made the declaration that Social Media started or fueled the revolt. The point is that Social Media played a "significant role" in it, which Gladwell emphasized Social Media never would. We're not saying Social Media is the gas that makes the car go, but it is the engine that gets you there faster and more efficiently. Could this revolt have happened without the role Social Media played? Perhaps. But not likely with the same speed of organization and number of people in that sort of oppressive environment.

  4. Mike Mcgrath from RealXstream PTY LTD, January 26, 2011 at 6:43 p.m.

    Blink and Tipping Point were right on the money, but his comments on social medias potential for political and social change seem short sighted at best.

  5. Khalid Nurredin from VEGAS FLAVA ENTERTAINMENT, January 26, 2011 at 7:06 p.m.

    I think it proves quite the opposite. I'm from the Middle East (Algeria) and if anything the social media has enabled the authorities to pinpoint EXACTLY who's at the forefront of the protests and deal not only with them but their families and friends. While twitter can tell you where the next protest is going to be, it's not the engine that drives the discontent. All Twitter and Facebook can do is tell you something after the fact,or alert you to where the next demonstration will be. The demonstrations would still be occurring whether Facebook or twitter existed, the two services merely enable you to find out about what's just happened a lttle faster. Gladwell was right.Your argument supposes that without Twitter and Facebook there'd be no discontent. They merely enable the outside world to know what's been going on all along. For the most part,social media is a big flaming bag of dog doo just like Gladwell said it was. Totally irrelevant to what's going on in the Middle East except to chronicle what's already transpired. Did social media cause the takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah? It's the same thing only on different ends of the political spectrum.This is a democratic revolution just like the one in 1979 in Iran when the Shah was deposed thirty years before Twitter and Facebook. Your argument needs more research.

  6. Eric Scoles from brand cool marketing, January 26, 2011 at 7:27 p.m.

    What should be embarrassing is the tenacous persistence with which social media "experts" insist that Gladwell is wrong, while demonstrating that they never actually understood his argument -- and possibly never gave the original "long think piece" an honest reading. (Skimming to look for Stuff That Looks Wrong doesn't count as an honest reading.)

    Social media was an adjunct. It was an enabler. It's possible that without it, the Tunisian revolt wouldn't have worked. But it's absolutely and obviously true that it would have failed utterly without the sweat and blood and real human risk capital investment of millions of people who never signed on to Twitter.

    You guys need to get over this need to be at the center of the universe. Social media as we now know it is a passing thing in the same way that all things are passing. If you invest a lot of time and energy into proving why it's now the axis around which the world revolves, you're going to wake up in a couple of years and discover that it's passed you by and become something else. Instead, you should be figuring out what's actually going on, where the actual motive force comes from. It doesn't come from Twitter or Facebook: It comes from us.

  7. Roger Wilson from The Conference Department, Inc., January 26, 2011 at 7:36 p.m.

    The media seems to love Facebook stories but the New York Times noted in coverage on January 14, that Al Jazeera has been airing nightly coverage of the unrest in Tunisa for the past month and that many in Tunisia “credit Al Jazeera’s broadcasts with forging the sense of solidarity and empowerment that moved Tunisians across the country to take to the streets simultaneously.” Without TV would any of this have gotten going?

  8. Khalid Nurredin from VEGAS FLAVA ENTERTAINMENT, January 26, 2011 at 7:57 p.m.

    Two more things to remember.In 1979 the Shah cut off telephone service so no one could communicate with each other.Mubarak shut down all the opposition newspapers in Egypt. You give too much credit to social media. Gladwell is more right than you will ever realize.

  9. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, January 26, 2011 at 8 p.m.

    To sum up the argument:
    1. Mr. Sass loves social media
    2. Mr. Gladwell thinks social media are superficial
    3. An event uses social media in way that could be interpreted by honest but opinionated people as either meaningful or superficial.
    4. Therefore, Mr. Gladwell must be wrong.

  10. Erik Sass from none, January 26, 2011 at 8:26 p.m.

    Who said that social media "caused" these protests? I'm saying it has helped protesters spread the message, organize, and so on. Of course human beings are doing the protesting, fighting, and dying: who ever said otherwise? But communications can play a substantial role in moving major events along. In 1979 the Shah may have cut off the phones, but Iranian revolutionaries still circulated audio tapes with messages from Khomeini and other leaders, and Khomeini orchestrated an international media campaign against the Shah from Paris. In the Russian Revolution control of telegraphs and telephones was critical to Bolshevik victory. In the American and French Revolutions printed pamphlets and broadsheets were key propaganda outlets -- why else would George III send Redcoats to break up printing presses, which were then repaired by rebel printers working overtime?

  11. Roger Wilson from The Conference Department, Inc., January 26, 2011 at 9:50 p.m.

    Erik, my question is not whether so-called social media (twitter is effectively in many cases a broadcast media) has played a role. Rather I am asking, what role exactly has it played, relative to Al Jazeera; blogging and other forms of communication? Because we (especially in the media) are so caught up in the social media story, the Tunisian story has been told here from a social media angle. But is that angle true? Without Al Jazeera playing up the unrest nightly for over a month would social media have made much of a dent? And how much does social media contribute vs. real word-of- mouth? What are the political economics, E.G. how important are General Rachid Ammar's reported 1,700 "likes" on facebook vs. what he did with his troops and tanks?

  12. Erik Sass from none, January 27, 2011 at 12:36 a.m.

    Roger, I agree that TV must play a huge role. Studies show TV still dominates media consumption both in the U.S. and abroad (although the balance is shifting in favor of the Internet) and Al-Jazeera is clearly a huge force in the Arab world. I certainly don't mean to detract from the role of traditional media in moving major events forward -- or stopping them. I'm thinking of Juan Carlos II defying Spanish coup plotters on national TV in 1981, Yeltsin defying the military coup on TV in 1991, Rwandan officials inciting genocide on radio stations in 1994, just for starters. No question, broadcast media is still huge huge huge. What's funny is that when I try to highlight one part of the equation -- the social media angle -- readers assume that I must mean that no other media play a role (when they obviously do) or, more absurd, that social media somehow caused these major events in Egypt and elsewhere. Obviously human beings are the prime movers of all human events.

  13. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, January 27, 2011 at 8:48 a.m.

    I agree Erik that Social helped start things in Egypt. I read it had pretty much nil help in Tunisia. I read the Egyptian protests started with Facebook but the numbers were small. The first demonstration had a few hundred people.

    For every Facebook update there are 183 SMS text messages sent. I have a hunch SMS and email which never get any play, actually played a much larger role than anything in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria etc. Especially since it is private. Even if the Telco is state owned it would take a while to discover someone texting or emailing than doing a Twitter or Facebook search.

    So I don't think it proves Malcom wrong at all.

  14. Khalid Low from Gotham Direct, Inc, January 27, 2011 at 9:34 a.m.

    Eric Saas probably hasn't lived outside of these United States to understand communication system in third world countries and Western countries are significantly different.
    That said, the emergence of new technology in third world countries and especially Africa has revolutionized how media is consumed and considering that 99% of Africa is run by dictators, the strength of Facebook and/or Twitter is intensified by the fact that standard media like TV, Radio or Newspaper is controlled by governments to keep the masses in the dark.

    So it goes without question that everyone there will HAVE to depend on Social media because they do NOT have a choice. Obviously, it helps that a call for demonstration is more personal when forwarded through SMS (aka Text Message), or FB and hence the revolution we are seeing in North Africa but since we all know that FB makes 100% of its money in Western Countries (you don't actually expect someone in Uganda to click on an ad and engage with it, do you?), the question becomes - if America was to have a problem like Egypt or Tunisia, will FB become a factor in pushing people to demonstrate against the government? I hardly think so. What do you think Eric Saas?

    Gladwell is more right than you think. He probably should have just made it clear that he was referring to Western Countries and especially these United States.

  15. Khalid Low from Gotham Direct, Inc, January 27, 2011 at 9:52 a.m.

    Eric, I just read your replies to some of the responses and I take back some of my comments. Those would have been great points to include on your article. And I apologize for coming on a bit harsh/rude.

  16. Myron Rosmarin from Rosmarin Search Marketing, Inc., January 27, 2011 at 5:50 p.m.

    This is a great debate and lots of terrific arguments made. It's perhaps one of the first times I've ever read comments in reply to an emotionally charged issue without getting disgusted by the rancor and lack of intelligence. So kudos to you all for that.

    I'll just add one more simple thought ... I think we make too much of "social media" as being new or confined to Facebook and Twitter. These are just new communication technologies but "social media" is not at all new. It's just a new name for a collection of technologies that have been evolving ever since Gutenberg invented a device to print books. The newspaper, radio, television, telegraph, telephone, walkie-talkies, ham radio, CB radio, the internet, email, SMS and probably ten more technologies I've left out are all part of the long evolution of communication devices which only recently have been given the new moniker "social media." As has been pointed out very well in this thread, these uprisings are going to happen regardless. But the communication devices of the day will make it that much easier for the population to organize.

  17. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 27, 2011 at 6:41 p.m.

    In the Arab world, the average birth rate is at least 7.5 per woman. However, horrid any of their governments are, I don't any government could keep up employment, housing or anything else. In Cairo, within the city of the dead where over 1.5 million (a low estimate) people live in a cemetary where there are back to back monuments and masoleums, no running water, nothing better than a make-shift cooking fires and no waste removal. Add to this, what percentage of these populations cannot read ?70-80%+ How many of the protesters found out by joining in when they saw others? Cairo is one huge traffic jam as it is and if 50% of the people were in the streets with the cars, buses, and donkeys there really would be chaos. We'll see. Remember, people do not fight over having too much when times are good; they fight when there is not enough. The overpopulation garantees fights with or without media.

  18. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 27, 2011 at 6:43 p.m.

    Please pardon a couple of typos.

  19. Eric Scoles from brand cool marketing, January 28, 2011 at 7:30 a.m.

    adam, I hear this "Gladwell doesn't do research" canard a lot. Whether he "never did any research" depends on what you count as research: No, he didn't conduct studies. But for all the books, he conducted extensive interviews; as a historian, he's familiar with the history of the civil rights movement (and other important historical movements); as a skilled and very active social media user, and as an academic who has social media as part of his area of study, he's pretty intimately familiar with how social media works.

    So no, maybe there's no "research" in the sense of constructing hypotheses and testing them. But in that sense, almost none of his critics (including Eric Sass) have "done research", either.

    BTW, if that's what you think _Blink_ and _Outliers_ were about, you might want to [re-]read them.

  20. Myron Rosmarin from Rosmarin Search Marketing, Inc., January 28, 2011 at 3:53 p.m.

    Below is an unedited breaking news alert I received from the Washington Post today. The salient points are the in the second paragraph and the first sentence of the third paragraph. The social networking sites enable but they're not required for social action.

    "Heavily armed riot police battled thousands of protesters across Cairo on Friday, as the Egyptian government sought to squelch a burgeoning pro-democracy movement that appears to be gaining strength.

    Egypt's government shut down Internet connections and cellular telephone service in an effort to disrupt communication among the demonstrators, who have relied heavily on social networking sites to organize their protests.

    But crowds nevertheless were gathering in response to organizers' call for a day of protests dubbed "Angry Friday," Tear gas blanketed much of this capital city's downtown, as demonstrators sought to converge on the centrally located Tahrir Square. The protesters were met by police wielding clubs and water cannons."

  21. S Gano from HIE Holdings Inc, January 28, 2011 at 6:46 p.m.

    @Myron Rosmarin

    The one major difference when alluding to legacy media as social media, is the the social aspect. TV, Radio, Newspaper are, for the most part, one-way communication. They send, we receive. There wasn't a true "social" function in those types of media. The information output is totally controlled by the media/corporations, not society.

    Perhaps the argument can be made that ham radio, telephones, etc. could be construed as earlier forms of social media. However, those only typically involve one-to-one communication. True social media in the context of today's communication methods, is a medium in which communication is shared instantaneously by many. One tweet can reach millions in seconds, while the same effect by ham radio or telephone would take a great deal longer.

  22. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 28, 2011 at 6:56 p.m.

    The assumption that the protests are pro-democracy. Because the citizens want more jobs and less fraud doesn't mean they care about legislatures. Even if a better government does form which is a large enough if, the restructuring needed to better lives won't be seen for generations and only if they start controlling the population with a major decrease in the birthrate.

  23. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., January 28, 2011 at 6:57 p.m.

    And snowstorms in the northeast prove global warming is a hoax, hoax, hoax. Time will tell, but my money's on Gladwell.

  24. Myron Rosmarin from Rosmarin Search Marketing, Inc., January 30, 2011 at 4:02 p.m.

    @S Gano

    I get what you're saying and I agree with you. My stance in the currently raging debate about social media's role in recent uprisings is that it *does* play a very important role. And I agree that it is playing a more powerful role than, say the telephone, or any other communication devices that came before it.

    But the important point of disagreement is whether social media tools are making something happen that wouldn't have happened without it. My position is no it is not. These uprisings and revolutions don't need the latest crop of "social media" communication tools to happen -- just as war doesn't require each subsequent advance in war technology. Wars happen with or without new technologies and so do revolutions.

  25. Mary Cole from B2B high tech global marketing, February 12, 2011 at 12:31 p.m.

    First, I must admit that Malcolm Gladwell is a spirit after my own heart. Second, there's a traditional saying in the scientific community that when a scientist says that something CANNOT be done, he is probably wrong. When a scientist says that something CAN be done, he is probably right. So... We're looking at a time of great technical changes in how people communicate and how we obtain information which is important to our lives. I've had a difficult time understanding why Egypt got rid of Mubarak NOW instead of, say, 5 years ago or 10 years ago. While we clearly do not NEED Twitter and Facebook to facilitate a revolution, they sure helped. But why wasn't there blood in the streets in the US when Bush had the US Supreme Court elect him? History depends on leadership and tipping points (and who would know better than Mr. Gladwell?). The dissatisfaction with Mubarak hit a tipping point that dissatisfaction with Bush did not. And so it goes. Electronic communication was a tool, not the cause.

  26. Erik Sass from none, February 18, 2011 at 11:56 p.m.

    There are so many thoughtful and informative comments in reaction to my original post. I just want to say it's a privilege to be able engage with this kind of audience. Thank you! Erik Sass

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