Commentary

Gladwell on Social Media and Revolution: So Wrong It Makes My Eyes Burn

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.

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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.

 
22 comments about "Gladwell on Social Media and Revolution: So Wrong It Makes My Eyes Burn".
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  1. Jason Baer from Convince & Convert, March 7, 2011 at 5:23 p.m.

    Love love love this column. I'm a Gladwell fan in general, but he's just digging himself a deeper hole on this issue. Thanks for disrobing the Emperor.

  2. Kathy Schlecht from Clarity Coverdale Fury, March 7, 2011 at 5:30 p.m.

    I agree with Jason and have been a fan in general. But Gladwell should just admit he was too general and it was a bad argument overall. Your column couldn't be more succinct, well done!

  3. Marcus Pratt from Mediasmith, Inc, March 7, 2011 at 5:35 p.m.

    Gladwell lost me at the broken windows theory but marketing people all seem(ed) to love his talent for combining an opinion with anecdotal evidence and presenting is as indisputable fact.

    Appreciate your commentary throughout this, especially the Land's End highlight!

  4. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, March 7, 2011 at 6 p.m.

    But these were not social media revolutions. If I was to place a percentage attributed to Social Media its 3%. Of all communication even less. I don't get this argument. Oppression and Poverty caused the revolutions. Not disgruntled citizens with facebook.

  5. Brad Stewart from Molecule Inc., March 7, 2011 at 6:04 p.m.

    Gotta love those authoritatively minimalist titles. Maybe his next book title should simply be "Wrong".

  6. Mark Burrell from Tongal, March 7, 2011 at 6:37 p.m.

    Oppression and Poverty were without a doubt the root causes but information and technology were the catalysts and the tool in which the people used to organize in such great numbers and with great effect. It's just speeding up progress.

  7. Jean Renard from TRM Inc., March 7, 2011 at 6:55 p.m.

    I would have you all consider something here. A revolution as we have seen in the past have had very specific drivers. There was generally a strategic plan and that plan was kept secret until the time for action was chosen.

    What we are seeing here is a population that is fed up and is more of a mutiny than anything. What will happen when the anger burns itself out and no clear leadership is established is another thing entirely. Fringe groups who are organized typically take over and the cycle begins anew.

    The role that social media and media in general can play is to fan the flames of discontent. That will cause a reaction, but only time will tell if this was a revolution in the strict sense of the term and not the spark that lit the fuse that connected to the powder-keg of discontent.

  8. Dianne Bayley from Freelance, March 7, 2011 at 11:55 p.m.

    Social media may not have caused any of the revolutions - but it certainly facilitated them. And if people were smart, they'd be watching Facebook and Twitter to see what's coming in the rest of Africa . . . I'm working with people (publishers - no, really, PUBLISHERS) who are equally afraid of social media and keep telling me "it's a fad". To which one can only reply, "It is indeed a fad. Like radio and television were." Great piece, Mr Sass.

  9. Alec Beckett from Nail Communications, March 8, 2011 at 3:57 p.m.

    I can't say I agree with Mr. Gladwell's "logic" on the topic, I do think there has been way too much hyper-ventilating about how Twitter and Facebook "caused" these revolutions. That is nonsense, they are simply means of communications. Did Paul Revere "cause" the American revolution?

    Or, from a blog post of ours a couple of weeks ago, "Paper didn’t create Christianity just because the Bible was printed on it."
    http://nail.cc/brain/social-media-caused-the-egyptian-revolution-and-it-didnt/

  10. Brian Shelton from Gilchrist & Soames, March 8, 2011 at 4:26 p.m.

    Really enjoyed this column, Erik! You are spot on and sum it all up beautifully with, "every successful revolution has made use of the most advanced communications available at the time." I wrote about that very thing 7 months ago (http://bit.ly/fzXRhR). It is pretty amazing that someone as bright as Gladwell can miss the mark so glaringly. Nice job!

  11. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, March 8, 2011 at 5:41 p.m.

    Somebody should get Malcolm Gladwell and Erik Sass onstage together.

  12. Shailley Singh from Say media, March 8, 2011 at 5:42 p.m.

    Revolutions will happen with or without social media. People find ways to upend the administrations. When they cannot revolutions die. The fact is social media is another distribution tool available to revolutionaries to communicate and bring to action their plans. I think people are missing the point Gladwell is making - Facebook did not make Egypt happen. It just happened to be a forum for them to communicate and raise voices.

  13. Paul Benjou from The Center for Media Management Strategies, March 8, 2011 at 5:54 p.m.

    Yes, revolutions will prevail with or without the likes of faceboo, Twitter, et al. They are simply tools du jour that happen to be in the right place at the right time.

    It's great to watch enthusiasm overtake reality by those who embrace the new social channels of communication .... but let's not get carried away with the impact they are making.

    As for e-commerce revenue, 95% of retail sales are NOT made online. As a marketer, where would YOU focus your marketing dollars?

    Paul Benjou
    Ad Blog: www.MyOpenKimono.com

  14. Suzanne Sanders from S2 Advertising, March 8, 2011 at 6:18 p.m.

    @ericsass #winning! LOL!

  15. Scott Brown from Conceptual Viral Marketing, March 8, 2011 at 6:43 p.m.

    I think you guys in social media NEED it to be responsible for a revolution. It's absolutely crap for marketing. Think about it. You're interrupting peoples most private conversations with their circle of friends, liteally, uninvited by and large, to sell them something. The research strongly suggests that people despise the brands that do this... So good luck with your social revolutions because the majority of your attempts to build communities and market to them are expensive failures. And that's not opinion, that's fact. I know, I saw a major car company embarass themselves at the Detroit autoshow with 'branded content' that has 900 total views on YouTube. Wow.

    Maybe you should stop laughing at Gladwell and start listening. The message and the media channel are two distinct things. And guess which one is more important than the other, and historically at the core of every 'revolution' social or technical?

    Quit crapping on intellectuals and get a degree in social psychology if you want to debate. The has too many experts who haven't done their homework... Most of them are called 'gurus' and work in social media.

    Ya, Gladwell's the a-hole. Ya know what? I'm the a-hole for reading this crap!

  16. Erik Sass from none, March 8, 2011 at 7:08 p.m.

    Why do I need an academic degree to be allowed to talk about current events? Would it make you any more likely to actually read what I wrote? And where did I confuse or conflate the message and the channel which delivers it?

  17. Mitch Drew from Mitch Drew Media, March 9, 2011 at 5:40 p.m.

    When Malcolm Gladwell visited Vancouver last year and spoke about how 'thin' the networks created by social networking were...I got it. I really do believe that revolution and true change can't be spawns over a social network. To overthrow a government or evoke serious social change, it needs to be fueled by something that has a much deeper connection. My connections on facebook and twitter are thin. The deep connections are face-to-face and are relationships that have developed over time. So..sorry folks. I agree with Malcolm Gladwell. He is 100% correct on this one.

  18. Alex Epstein from National Safety Council, March 9, 2011 at 9:12 p.m.

    A guy in Egypt is caught up in the exuberance of a (relatively) bloodless revolution and names his daughter Facebook.

    All of a sudden everyone thinks “the” social network can topple dictators.

    I hope this guy is getting Charlie Sheen money for product placement. The damage to the kid in later life will be like a sad sagging tattoo on an aging body. She will scarcely remember the good old days, and carry the scars for life. As if she had been named Broadside in the wake of American Revolution.

    More about Facebook, Self-Immolation and the Mechanics of Regime Change at www.viewser.com

  19. Bert Shlensky from stretchandcover , March 10, 2011 at 3:28 p.m.

    the amazing thing is why do we pay attention to people like gladwell or charley sheen when they are just doing anything they can to defend their mistakes . Both have made great contributions but their recent denials simply demean those efforts

  20. Kevin Horne from Verizon, March 10, 2011 at 4:40 p.m.

    Haven't heard boo about Twitter or Facebook in Wisconsin...what's up with THAT?!??!

  21. Erik Sass from none, March 10, 2011 at 8:22 p.m.

    @Kevin Horne: That is a darn good question, and certainly something I will look into now (thanks for the idea!). My off-the-cuff, uninformed answer is that in the terms of this debate, I imagine Malcolm Gladwell would dismiss the protests in Wisconsin as not substantive because they don't involve real, existential threats to the well-being of the protestors. His original example in the New Yorker article was lunch-counter sit-ins in the 1960s in the South, which obv. carried far more serious threats to personal safety for the participants. If social media helped with the Wisconsin protests, he might argue that this proves his point, since the Wisconsin protests are ultimately (despite what organizers might claim) pretty "low-stakes" affairs, since participants aren't putting their lives on the line. That said, obviously I disagree with Gladwell almost across the board, and I think A) the protests in Wisconsin are important and B) social media could very well be playing a significant role. I'll look into it -- thanks again for the tip!

  22. Scott Brown from Conceptual Viral Marketing, March 13, 2011 at 5:58 a.m.

    Your need the academic degree to understand that Gladwell is correct. The model of retailing has not been transformed... The speed/convenience/methods have transformed, not the model itself. It remains intact. That's the point. Gladwell is, if I recall, referring to the underlying systems of retail. It's part of the marketing method. That process, or philosophy gas not changed. He went back a decade to reference his trip to Land's End because that's the last iteration of game changing events in media. They come around every so often and the same, "We're gonna live forever" talk comes from the gurus. Gladwell is saying "everything old is new again." problem is your view is myopic. Gladwell speaks in terms of marketing and a social sciences perspective, not just social media. Did Facebook facilitate a revolution? Definitely. Did it cause it? Not necessarily, which you correctly point out. He's just saying what you pointed out. He seems to not think the degree of communication facilitation is as crucial as you do. Social is a breakthrough, but it isn't the first and wont be the last. Gladwell is the father of viral marketing. He understands this. He's talking about something bigger than social, the medium. He 's talking about the marketing model/communications systems in which social plays a role but isn't the whole show.

    You see, he's not an idiot all of a sudden. It's ironically miscommunication. That's what we all do for a living. Communicate. Remember the process, it's more permanent than the media vehicle du jour.

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