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February 11, 2011 / compassioninpolitics

Can Social Media Create Social Change: Gladwellian (Re)Dux on Egypts (Re)volution


Assessing Gladwells Core Argument: Taking “Does Egypt Need Twitter” to Task on Historical Grounds
Malcomb Gladwell’s most recent New Yorker article “Does Egypt Need Twitter” just silly. In it he asks us to imagine what social media would have meant in a world of Mao:

When Mao famously said that power springs from the barrel of a gun, it was assumed that he was talking about guns. There wasn’t much interest at the time in how he chose to communicate that sentiment: whether he said it in a speech, say, or whispered it to a friend, or wrote it in his diary or published it in a book. That would never happen today, of course. We now believe that the “how” of a communicative act is of huge importance. We would say that Mao posted that power comes from the barrel of a gun on his Facebook page, or we would say that he blogged about gun barrels on Tumblr—and eventually, as the apostles of new media wrestled with the implications of his comments, the verb would come to completely overcome the noun, the part about the gun would be forgotten, and the the big takeaway would be: Whoa. Did you see what Mao just tweeted?

Beyond these fundamental questions, which Gladwell entirely neglects to answer–his article seems to assume that the barrel of a gun is the only form of power or change in politics. However, this is belied by Gladwells own position as a journalist & all the literature on the basis of bottom up and grassroots social change.

While Gladwell’s first article on this topic was both compelling and comparatively well grounded (“The Revolution will Not Be Tweeted“), this seems to be an attempt to re-stoke the fire of online debate. Gladwells point seems less evidence based (with data and warrants) and almost entirely humor-based.

However, i think Gladwells article forgets a couple recent historical markers which better contextualize the role of the web:

1) Could Obama have achieve such change without the web?
2) Could Sarah Palin have achieve such change without Facebook and the social web?
3) Should just close up shop because its entirely silly and ineffective?

Further, could the openness of the web helped create a revolution with overthrew Mao or at least created more reforms by openness? Is he saying the act of the government to close down Facebook and Google was counterproductive by causing to protesters in Egypt to shift to more effective tools? And in what ways did CNN journalists and others half a world a way use Twitter as a means for communication? (after all both information & attitudinal change is probably the prerequisite to social change in many cases)

Taking “Does Egypt Need Twitter” to Task on Human Psychology

Not withstanding the historical innacuracy of Gladwells line of reasing–lets assess the rest of Gladwells stream of “argument”:

People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Unfortunately, this is a classic case of human and Gladwellian wishful thinking. Apparently, the Heath brothers book “Switch: How to Create Change When Change is Hard” on the science and social psychology of social change wasn’t on Gladwells summer reading list. In their book, the Heath brothers, who are both professors at Stanford University and specialize on this issue of behavior change, talk about the need to “shape the path” (lower the barriers) as well as the need for “baby steps”–Twitter potentially accomplishes both tasks. He really should read up on the research of the Heath brothers before making such bombastic claims about human motivation and psychology. Ultimately, Lowering the barriers for human action (including activism and social change) is vitally important for action to take place.

Finally, Gladwell seems to assume that communication channels are always zero sum–that one must choose between TV or radio or online and offline. However, in the field of protest this really isn’t a choice (so its not an opportunity cost that Gladwell seems to imply)–but this decision calculus doesn’t have to take place. Put simply: it can be both/and. We can do both.

Matthew Ingram, Stewie Boyd, and Brian Solis all have a great deal to say on the role of Twitter and social technologies in the ongoing (re)volution in Egypt. For more on the Heath Brothers & their research, I suggest reading their book “Switch” or checking out this talk at the Stanford Innovation Review by Chip Heath.

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