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David Weinberger

David Weinberger

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Malcolm Gladwell Proves Too Much

Posted: 02/ 4/11 03:26 PM ET

Malcolm Gladwell is going further out on a creaky limb. His reading of the role of social media in Tunisia and Egypt actually seems to lead to conclusions that I think he would acknowledge are extremely unlikely.

Gladwell is in the unfortunate position of having published a New Yorker article dismissive of the effect of social media on social protest movements just weeks before the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts. Now Gladwell has posted a 200-word commentary that maintains his position without emendation. (I was among the many who replied to Gladwell's initial article. And Mathew Ingram has an excellent response to Gladwell's latest post.)

Let's look at each of the post's two paragraphs.

Paragraph #1. This is a paragraph of ridicule. Gladwell says that paying attention to social media is like hearing a famous revolutionary statement from Mao Zedong, paying scant attention to its content and import, and instead getting all excited because of the medium he used.

Yes, it is possible to pay too much attention to the medium as opposed to the message. But, as with so many arguments by ridicule, this one doesn't advance our thought at all. We can counter by trying to make the analogy more exact: If in 1935 Mao had said "Power springs from the barrel of a gun," and it had spread through, say, a newfangled telephone tree so that it reached beyond the boundaries of government-controlled radio, and if that statement had signaled a turn to violent uprising, it would be irresponsible to ignore the role of the medium in the dissemination of the message. Or, if government printers had in the 1960s refused to publish the Little Red Book that spread that quote, the lack of a medium for it would surely be worth discussing. Media play an important role. When the medium is new, it is right to examine that role. That is not to say that the medium is a sufficient cause, or is the only thing worth discussing. But who has attributed the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings solely to the existence of social media?

Gladwell's argument in this first paragraph therefore seems to me to be: (1) Ultimately an argument against media having any role or significance in political movements; (2) An argument against a strawman; (3) Less an argument at all than a "Hey you kids, get off my lawn" statement of alignment.

Paragraph #2. Gladwell reiterates the point of his original New Yorker article that political activism requires strong ties, and social media only provides weak ties. He defends these contentions by using the word "surely," which almost always indicates that the speaker has no evidence to present that could in fact make us sure: "But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another."

It is not at all obvious that this is the least interesting fact. Social media are a new variable. Because history is so damn particular, contingent, and emergent, we can never be entirely sure which new variables matter. The anti-Mubarak demonstrations have been (apparently) heavily supported by Egypt's trade unions, for example; perhaps that's worth exploring. Declaring the possible role of social media the "least interesting fact" seems based either on an a priori belief that (a) media never have an important role in social movements, or (b) our new social media can have no role because of Gladwell's theory that they can't supply the strong ties necessary for activism. The first alternative seems too silly to defend. If it's the second, then I would have thought a reasonable response from Gladwell would have been along these lines: "I've put forward a bold hypothesis about the ineffectiveness of social media. That hypothesis is based primarily on some historical examples. We have some new examples before us. Let us examine them to see if they indeed support my hypothesis — especially since so many have claimed that this new evidence refutes that hypothesis." Instead we get all the power a confidently rendered "surely" can bring.

But the second paragraph is not over. Gladwell now gives examples of historical revolutions that succeeded before the development of the Net. The conclusion warranted from this evidence is that no particular medium is necessary for a revolution: We know you can have a revolution without, say, telephones because we've had many such revolutions. But this is a really bad way to argue about historical explanations. Many wars have ended without any atomic bombs being used, so we might as well say that historians ought not to consider the effect dropping a-bombs had on ending WWII. No, if we want to understand an event, we have to understand it within its history. The events in Tunisia and Egypt are occurring within a history in which social media are being used for among the first times. That makes the question of the role of social media interesting, and, under most theories of history — ones in which the nature of the contemporary media plays a contributing part — important.

Gladwell's second paragraph therefore "proves" too much. But he backs off the obvious silliness of where his arguments lead by concluding: "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." He thus proposes a sort of historical determinism: No matter what the means of communication, those who want a revolution will have a revolution. But: (1) How do we know this is true? (2) The means of communication may well effect (a) when it happens, (b) how it happens, (c) who participates, (d) its success, (e) how the world reacts, and (f) how the participants view themselves as a social group. That last point I acknowledge is the squishiest of them, but it may have the most lasting effect, helping to shape the governmental structure that emerges post-revolution: "We are a mob inspired by the incredible leaders who have the megaphones" might tend toward differences in governance than "We are a connected, empowered network." In any case, it seems to me that investigating the role of social media is not an activity beneath contempt.

And that's why I've written a post ten times longer than the one it's discussing. Gladwell — with his amazing ability to illuminate difficult matters — is not merely splashing cold water on an overheated subject, but is trying to drown the subject entirely. Because we don't yet understand the effect social media are having on social movements, it is unhelpful to have such a powerful voice ridiculing the effort to trace their effects. Gladwell's attempt to undo unwarranted enthusiasm comes across instead as an argument for diminished nuance. That is exactly what Gladwell is decrying in our discourse, and is not what his body of writing has exemplified.

So, I come out of his brief post wondering how Gladwell would answer the following questions:

1. Does Gladwell believe that the means of communication never has any effect on any social protest movement? ("...in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice.")

2. If he believes that the means of communication can have some effect, then does he believe that some media that do not create strong ties — radio, newspapers, tv, etc. — are worth considering when trying to understand social protest movements? If so, then why are networked social media not worth considering?

3. If social media are worth considering as playing some role in social protests, exactly what role and how important? A role so trivial that it is literally the least interesting factor historians and analysts should be looking at? Or is it of more importance than that, but just not anywhere near worth the amount of attention it's been getting?

4. On what does he base these views? A theory about how social protest movements have worked and must work? Does he hold this theory as so obviously true that all events must now be interpreted within it, or is he willing to examine events to see if they support or contradict his theory?

 

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