You could almost hear the brows furling across the Twitterverse the day Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change” article appeared on The New Yorker’s website Oct. 4. Many fired off a defiant comment without getting beyond the essay’s sub-heading, “Why the revolution will not be Tweeted.” The reaction rippled through Twitter in what many social media passionistas perhaps thought was evidence Gladwell was wrong. They had become activists against the popular author.
Unfortunate as it is, many of the neo-Gladwell haters never read the piece, nor did they see what he was trying to say. They are, after all, the 140-character set. I’ve yet to see anything Gladwell writes be less than five jump pages on the New Yorker site. He’s an essayist and author. The haters, comparatively, have technological Tourette Syndrome. Twitter front man Biz Stone even defended social networks in an Atlantic Monthly piece that, while positioned as a counterpoint, seemed whiny and defensive.
- Malcolm Gladwell. Image via Wikipedia
But even Stone missed the point. Gladwell was simply pointing out, in his well-researched and inquisitive style, that networks are systems of weak ties. Hierarchies are systems of strong ones. True revolution, true activism is life-or-death for all involved, not just one imprisoned Chinese writer or Wall Street financier’s girlfriend’s cell phone. Networks are phenomenal structures for disseminating information, but inefficient at calling people to true action. Gladwell’s point was that while networks are awesome at asking people to raise their hand to say they care, they don’t have the offline, reality check of asking people to take a bullet.
Networks are passive motivators. If it doesn’t cost me much time, money or energy, I’ll “Like” your cause on Facebook. I’ll retweet your plea to sign a petition. I’ll perhaps even donate a few bucks to clean up oily pelicans.
But weak ties won’t motivate people to stand in front of a moving tank, defy a government known to kill those that do or surrender a kidney for a complete stranger.
Gladwell’s tome wasn’t an attack on social networking. It was merely an attempt to bring a sense of reality to the over-inflated sense of import we give it. This isn’t to say social networks aren’t powerful or meaningful or cannot help facilitate revolution, activism and social change. They can. But they help facilitate it, not drive it.
Social media are communications channels, not power structures. The hierarchy of order that produced the civil rights movement may have been helped by social media, but it would have (and did) happen without it, too. If China is to become a democratic state one day, it won’t be because us Westerners pestered Beijing with Tweets of their injustices. It will be the result of an organization of citizens rally together and stand for their rights. Or worse, have to fight for them. Sure, Facebook messages may be the carrier pigeons, but carrier pigeons don’t win wars.
Similarly, weak ties are not responsible for movements in marketing. The Pepsi Refresh Project is coordinated through social media (the channel) but is a movement because the causes generate benefit to the off-line, real world. Without the Internet, it would still work. Maker’s Mark Ambassadors are members of a vibrant, engaged community that existed off-line before it ever had an online sandbox. Lego enthusiasts who meet virtually are weakly connected. The moment they meet and share the real experience, then social marketing takes roots.
I’ve long said at some point the pendulum will swing back and people will realize it’s the offline, face-to-face relationships that are meaningful. Brands that find ways to move their online (weak tie) communities offline (strong tie), are the ones that will win in the long run.
Malcolm Gladwell just took 4,350 more words to say it.
- Twitter in ‘Smug’ Contest with Malcolm Gladwell [Feuds] (gawker.com)
- Malcolm Gladwell’s Response to Critics of His New Yorker Piece on Social Media (blogs.forbes.com)
- Memo to Malcolm Gladwell: Nice Hair, But You Are Wrong (nytimes.com)
- The Revolution May Or May Not Be Tweeted (techcrunch.com)
- Twitter: Gladwell’s social media argument ‘laughable’ (guardian.co.uk)
- Is Social Networking Useless for Social Change? A Response to The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell (alternet.org)