The argument over the role of social media in the revolutions which shook the Middle East over the last two months has meandered along in that particularly unsatisfying way that public debates tend to nowadays, with pundits lobbing generalities in online echo chambers unlikely to produce any decisive conclusion, with scant evidence that anyone is even listening to the other "side." Indeed, I would be hard pressed to identify the central issue or issues of this disjointed non-dialogue at this point, after all the straw men have been duly demolished: does anyone seriously believe that social media made the revolutions all by itself, no humans required? And at the same time, is anyone seriously arguing social media didn't play a significant role?
Well, yes: Malcolm Gladwell appears to be arguing just that, with oblivious confidence and despite mounting evidence to the contrary, apparently out of perverse intellectual pride. You see, Gladwell painted himself into a rhetorical corner with a mildly infamous essay in The New Yorker, asserting that social media has not, will not, and cannot change the face of true social activism -- meaning the kind of confrontations with unjust authority which may lead to violence and personal injury.
After the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, many observers (including myself) seized on the role of social media to refute Gladwell's sweeping dismissal of its revolutionary potential. Safe inside his fortress of paint, Gladwell has fired back on a couple occasions -- but with arguments that are so unreflective, facile, and silly I almost have to wonder if he's putting us on.
The most recent riposte appears in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs, where Gladwell contributed a short piece taking the "con" position on the issue of social media in revolution, versus Clay Shirky, who argued "pro." Once again, Gladwell tries to use historical analogies to make an embarrassingly simpleminded argument: basically, because revolutions happened in the past without social media, social media didn't play a role in the current Middle East revolutions.
No, really, that's what he's saying: "The lesson here is just because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean that they matter... What evidence is there that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from a lack of cutting-edge communications and organizational tools?"
Presuming Gladwell isn't joking, I would offer this response: no one ever said that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from such a lack. Indeed, that's kind of the whole point: every successful revolution has made use of the most advanced communications available at the time, which often (but not always) allowed rebels to outwit sclerotic governments which were behind the technological times.
During the American Revolution, patriots used secret printing presses hidden in basements; doesn't it seem significant that Benjamin Franklin, the father of Independence, was a printer by trade? During the French Revolution, the Directory organized the first draft in history with printed posters bearing the famous proclamation of a levee en masse on August 23, 1793. When communications advanced, revolutionaries were always among the earliest adopters: daily newspapers played a central role during the "liberal revolutions" of 1848 -- the British Library has a special collection devoted to them. During the Russian Revolution and ensuing civil war, control of telephones and telegraphs was crucial to the success of Lenin's Bolsheviks, and a decade later Adolf Hitler pioneered the use of radio in politics (as these two examples illustrate, it's not always a good thing). Or how about Russian intellectual dissidents circulating photocopied samizdat texts in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s... or Ayatollah Khomeini's followers in Iran circulating audio tapes of his speeches against the Shah... and the list goes on -- yes, right up to 2011, when an Egyptian man decides to name his newborn daughter "Facebook" in gratitude for the social network's role in the recent revolution.
The most embarrassing part of Gladwell's argument in Foreign Affairs is his attempt to use a more recent analogy which effectively refutes itself:
I was reminded of a trip I took just over ten years ago, during the dot-com bubble. I went to the catalog clothier Lands' End in Wisconsin, determined to write about how the rise of the Internet and e-commerce was transforming retail. What I learned was that it was not.
Uh, really? Did I really just see Malcolm Gladwell, the Smarty-pants-in-chief, reach back a decade for a single anecdote proving that e-commerce hasn't "transformed" retail? Sorry, this is beyond embarrassing -- it's just dumb. First of all, it may be worth noting that total e-commerce sales have climbed over 400% from $32.6 billion in 2001 to $165.4 billion in 2010, increasing from 1% to 5.5% of total retail sales. And oh yeah, as for Land's End, Information Week reports that "most of its revenue flows through its Web site today." So there's that.
I'm not just quibbling with Gladwell about one stupid anecdote: the fact is this mindset pervades his whole argument about social media. Shockingly, he seems to discount the idea of historical progression: it seems elementary that just because something didn't use to be important, doesn't mean it isn't important now, right? But that's exactly the argument he has made about social media, both in his New Yorker article and his subsequent defenses of it.