It was a warm winter's Sacramento day in graduate school when I first fell in love with Malcolm Gladwell. At first, it was the obvious work, The Tipping Point. I identified as an "Information Broker," proudly lauding to myself the value I believed I brought to business and other professional relationships. Like every Gladwell fan, Blink and Outliers were read upon their release. As a would-be sociologist, the insights on behavior and the spread of ideas were intriguing.
Today, I have to wonder how the scholar who described so aptly the spread of ideas can ignore the broadcast power of modern tools, and the undeniable value these tools bring to growing cultural empathy and geopolitical awareness for those who may not otherwise engage.
Not so long ago, we may have watched a revolution on the nightly news. We may have quickly glanced by it in the newspaper. And, after that brief moment, it would vanish from our lives until the next day's new cycle brought it anew. The revolution came directly through the few with the capacity on the ground to deliver information. They decided who to interview, what footage to air and what images to publish.
This traditional news delivery context has not changed much, but Gladwell misses the point of why people are talking about Twitter and the revolution. The desire to use the tools that facilitate free speech and expression are an essential part of the narrative around this revolution since they serve as the ultimate symbol of the freedoms people in Egypt, and other places of unrest around the world, wish to gain: the freedom to be, the freedom to express.
The amplification of broadcast capacity and the enhancement of cross-cultural understanding are grossly underestimated by Gladwell. In his The New Yorker piece, "Does Egypt Need Twitter?," Gladwell misses the mark on what has been a widespread discussion of the use of social media tools: there would be little discussion abroad without them.
This is perplexing since Gladwell, in likely his most famous book, The Tipping Point, identifies as a pivotal role what he terms the "Information Broker," an individual who builds their social capital through the literal brokerage of information. Social media tools allow for non-traditional information brokers, enabling unlikely activists to work in online solidarity with those struggling abroad, in the present case, Egypt.
Tackling the historical perspective on revolutions, we suffer from a similar problem that we did with traditional media in the 20th century: we have learned what we know from accounts that were created either by those who possessed the education or the resources to provide such histories. The "information brokerage" was limited to the few versus the collective history of today's events that are being created by the many. Surely, we will need to tease through the information inundation to piece together the "story," but I can imagine the result will be a rich and diverse account for future generations and its assembly a learning experience for our own.
Protests have and will continue to exist regardless of social media. Our power to understand them has radically changed. One remarkable visual representation of the revolution, a photo of Christians amidst the turmoil in Egypt forming a "human shield" around Muslims during prayer, spread with rapidity online. Many who shared this photo are Christians here in the United States, a place where such powerful imagery could serve to aid our own understanding and work to dispel intolerance of the religion of our neighbors. The revolution afar now has the capacity to facilitate change here at home, one photo, one tweet and one person at a time.
As a final attack on this tweeted revolution, Gladwell intimates that the content surrounding the revolution is hardly coming from Egypt. While the amount of information sharing from within Egypt versus that being shared outside of Egypt has yet to be quantified (a project for the data enablers), there is no doubt that powerful user-generated content is coming from the ground. People in the West have worked with those in Egypt to build channels to continue the information sharing even as their government attempts to suppress it.
We have always talked, laughed, cried, whispered, argued and yelled. Human emotions and expressions, social movements and collective action, are thousands of years old. The digital "how" of our communicative acts today, though, is undeniably powerful.
When discussing how epidemics "spread" in The Tipping Point, Gladwell wrote "The Law of the Few...says that one critical factor in epidemics is the nature of the messenger." The fact that the messenger may be @[insertname] does not underscore the importance of their message.
Gladwell, it was real, but it's time to move beyond the Hush Puppies.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more