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Malcolm Gladwell: 9,999 Hours Shy

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Like a bull through a china shop, Malcolm Gladwell's recent article, "Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted" plows through social media enabled activism, dismissing its past and future potential as a tool for impact. Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of Malcolm's work and have read almost every page he has written, but I think he missed the mark here. He has a flare for using selective case studies to draw brilliant macro social behavioral theories and this article is no different.

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Gladwell's frustration with the social media craze is apparent as he assembles and then reacts to a list of over-hyped quotes and accolades for the infant platforms. "Are people who log onto their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?" he asks after contrasting the casual commitment of many Facebook users to their causes with the indefatigable determination of civil rights protestors. His question is legitimate -- not every member of Facebook is the next best hope for social change -- but in Gladwell fashion it is dismissive of many counter-examples where social media have been integral to transformative events. Barack Obama utilized Facebook and broader online networks to deliver unprecedented access to his campaign and the political process, and was rewarded with immense grassroots support and fundraising success. So my answer to Gladwell's question is yes: Obama is on my shortlist for people that are the "best hope for us all."

A tool need not work in every instance to be valuable. The story is not "Social networks always work;" it is that they can work. My biggest fear of Gladwell's article, especially given his credibility and platform, is that it will serve as the rallying cry for old-school NFPs to keep their heads in the sand. I believe that social media is a must for not-for-profits seeking to increase their impact. If a NFP relies on people in any way then they must go where they are and where they communicate. The common thread that can be drawn between successful social media NFPs is the participation from the executive level. This is a world in which Malcolm has zero experience and that has to be considered before it becomes the gospel of NFP execs choosing to insulate themselves from change.

Those who believe in social networking as a tool for impact have responded with torrents of positive case studies and examples of online fundraising successes. Ironically, these responses are "Gladwelly" selective, overlooking the shortcomings inherent in loose-tie networks. There is a real danger in automatically equating a big social media list to big impact, because we lose sight of what real change is about. Many of these responses, I think, have missed the larger point.

What I love about the article was summarized in this line: "Where activists were once defined by their actions, they are now defined by their tools." I love it. It reminds me of our myopic obsession about the size of our lists over the depth of connection and real social impact. It screams 'let's not s**t ourselves' -- Twitter doesn't deserve a Nobel any more than a mobile phone, laptop, printing press, or other communication tools do. Give people more avenues to communicate meaningful ideas and good things will happen.

By the way, barring a fail whale, news about the #revolution will be tweeted.

Other interesting critiques:
The Atlantic
Wired
Beth's Blog
Socialbrite