Malcolm Gladwell’s errors on social media activism

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell in 2008. Photo by Flickr user Pop!Tech

New Yorker writer and sociologish author Malcolm Gladwell has a new essay out in the New Yorker that seeks to draw a line in the sand between social networks and “real-life” relationships when it comes to producing significant social change.

My first reaction was, this reads like hyperbolically contrarian linkbait — in the vein of “X Is Dead” headlines sprawling the tech blogs today. Maybe that’s true. But I’d like to think he’s serious about this, and so I’d like to give the proper context to the world of networks and action that he frames.

First, let me stipulate that I think Gladwell is basically right about his descriptions of the different functions of weak-tie and strong-tie relationships. He’s right that weak-tie relationships that dominate a sprawling network structure are less likely to produce mass acts of risk-taking “in real life,” such as sit-ins. They are more likely to produce mass amounts of small, online-only participation such as donations or petitioning.

However, Gladwell stops his analysis at stage of strong-tie vs weak-tie, when really that is not the situation “in real life.” My quibbles:

1) The mass amounts of small participation that social networks can produce are not as worthless as Gladwell frames them. He flips Clay Shirky’s example of finding a lost cell phone, and notes that “The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.” That still adds up to $115,410.51 toward the Darfur cause that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Not to mention the less tangible raising of awareness.

2) Weak ties can grow into strong ties. Your 1,000 Facebook “friends” may not really all be friends, but many are acquaintances who you may never have met without Facebook, and with a few you may over time build a strong-tie relationship that does produce IRL action.

3) Online networks and IRL networks overlap. They aren’t entirely exclusive competing environments. Some portion of the people I connect with on Twitter and Facebook are relatives or good friends who I do have strong ties with and would take “real action” with for a good cause. These networks strengthen strong-ties while also building new weak-ties. They are not, as Gladwell would have you believe, a vast wasteland of weak-tie, pretend friends.

While he accuses innovators of tending to be “solipsists” who “want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model,” Gladwell is doing the same. He wants to make a point — a fair one — that weak-tie relationships produce different action than strong-tie relationships. But he stretches too far in not recognizing the contributions of weak-tie relationships and mass coordinated action via social networks is of some great value that is still growing and not yet fully measured, and it does not operate exclusive of or in opposition to real-life strong-tie relationships.

UPDATE at 3:08 p.m.: Check out this interview clip from January when Gladwell tells Katie Couric he’s not really interested in social media and doesn’t think he’ll write about it because other people know it better:

  • http://twitter.com/stevebuttry Steve Buttry

    Excellent points, Jeff, and here's one more: Malcolm Gladwell has tweeted 10 times, so I think it's safe to say he doesn't really understand Twitter relationships.

  • andrewottoson

    I think #3 above calls into question whether Gladwell's argument even pertains to Iran, given that SMS is considered of equal or greater importance. Does SMS signify a weak tie or a strong one?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jun/09/iran-twitter-revolution-protests

    Annabelle Sreberny, professor in global media and communications at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, agrees. “Twitter was massively overrated. But spaces like YouTube and Facebook have been very important for sharing information.”

    But Sreberny, who is organising a conference next week on the role of non-conventional media in Iran, adds: “I wouldn't argue that social media really mobilised Iranians themselves – the protest were best organised using SMS.”

    Point being, Iran might not be the exemplar of a social media revolution Gladwell takes it to be.

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