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.