Gladwell misses the point

A few days ago, Malcom Gladwell had a bone to pick. In a The New Yorker blog post titled “Does Egypt Need Twitter?” he wrote:

“Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years”

While I previously found his August 2010 article in The New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will not be Tweeted,” interesting and somewhat persuasive, this latest blog post smacked of back-in-my-day syndrome. In the article last year, Gladwell derided those who believe that Twitter, Facebook and other social media and connective tools are the harbingers of revolution and change in today’s world. He mockingly compares the 1.2 million members of the Save Darfur Coalition Facebook page, who have donated an average of 9 US cents each, with 1960s civil rights activists, specifically the four African-American students who sat at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro at risk of their own safety. Gladwell, somewhat snarkily, ends his The New Yorker article thus:

“A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.”

It is somewhat surprising that Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”, a book about the virus-like behaviour of ideas, messages and behaviors, can miss the point so thoroughly. In comparing the role of online tools in Egypt’s recent protests to the “slacktivists” derided in his article, Gladwell misses the point, and makes a mockery of the people who have made proper use of these networking tools to fight for change. The real players in what have been recently called Twitter and Facebook revolutions are not American college students clicking “like” or frantic bloggers who copy-paste without understanding the issues. They are certainly not 24-hour news-cycle TV stations who seem to want to replace journalism with reading out aggregated tweets. They are not Westerners who are miles away from the action. The real players are citizens of the countries under fire who, contrary to Gladwell’s take, are indeed risking life and limb to speak their minds in regions where free speech is not a given. In these cases, in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Iran, Yemen and elsewhere, these people use social media networks to organize and spread their message and then also gather physically in Tahrir Square and elsewhere to defend their causes, fighting for their rights with the same ferocity and intensity as all those historical revolutions that Gladwell wants to glamorize.

Every sane person knows that Twitter and Facebook are tools just like the telephone, the radio and the newspaper were tools that accelerated past revolutions. In the same way oppressive regimes have shut down dissenting radio stations and underground newspapers, we saw Egypt’s government shut down the internet in a previously unthinkable move. If the online revolutions were as shallow as Gladwell posits, based on “weak-ties” that do not inspire action, this internet blackout should have resulted in demovitvated protesters who would, what, go home and wait for the internet to come back? No, protests continued because, while online tools were the spark that allowed fast organization and communication, no one (no thinking person at least) is claiming that they were the sole means to do so. To put it another way, Gladwell and others of his ilk might grumble that back in the day, people got where they needed to go on foot or by horse and camel. While that is no doubt true, aren’t we darned glad that we have cars and planes nowadays that allow us to travel faster, further and carry more?

Twitter, Facebook and other online networks are tools. We know that. However, it is disingenous to discount the role they have played in accelerating organization efforts, disemminating ciritical information in-country and to the rest of the world and documenting protests and dissent, all in ways that are faster, go further and carry more than traditional tools.



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