A really smart guy blows it completely…Malcolm Gladwell isn’t exactly wrong, he just missed the point.

So let me start with a couple of quick disclaimers.

  1. Malcolm Gladwell is a really smart guy, I respect a lot of his ideas, and I really liked several of his books.
  2. I’m not trying to pick a fight with someone famous just to elevate my blog.  What might I accomplish? Doubling the two dozen people who read it?  This isn’t gratuitous, and (as evidenced by my spotty posting record) I’m obviously not trying to make this blog a platform for fame or visibility.
  3. He’s also a lot more famous, rich and brainy than I am, so if those are the metrics that serve as proxy for right and wrong, maybe I should shut up. That said… Yeah, he totally blew it.

So a while back, I wrote a post called “Tech Coup 2.0 – The Revolution Will Be Twittervised…”, one in a long list of plays on the original title, poem and song, (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron, 1970).

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Gladwell had written a piece a few months before for the New Yorker called “Small Change: The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted”.  The reason I’m taking this on now, when the question might seem oh-so-totally-six-months-ago is not just to defend my position, but because I think this is going to be the question of 2012 far more than it was the question of 2010.  First let’s talk about how he’s missed the point, then I’ll touch on why I think the impact of this is going to reach far beyond the past year’s “Arab Spring”.

Gladwell’s argument, as well as those of several learned and impressive people he sites including Golnaz Esfandiari’s excellent piece in Foreign Policy “Misreading Tehran: The Twitter Devolution”, is that social media and virtual networks have fundamental flaws as a tool for organizing revolution.  I won’t recap his whole argument here, but citing examples from East Germany to the US civil rights movement, he explains that, among other things, social uprising against the status quo requires two very important elements.

The first is what he calls “strong ties”.  It’s easy, he argues, to “join a cause” by clicking the “Like” button facebook or giving a dollar via Web site, but when we’re talking about rising up against a regime or authority with the ability and willingness to use coercion and force, it’s a different ballgame.  To be willing to stand in front of the proverbial tank or put flowers in a rifle barrel aimed at your head, true (that is, physically dangerous) stands against authority have traditionally required a personal connection to others involved.  Flash-mobbing Wall Street in New York, where the rule of law and one’s physical safety are essentially not in question (recent left-wing hysteria about pepper spray and fascism not withstanding), is totally different than coming out of your house to face down Assad’s security forces because of a text message or Tweet.  People, he argues, put their asses on the line, because people they know and care about are taking to the streets too, and/or have been victims of the condition against which they protest.

The second factor a true uprising requires to be sustained, he argues, is hierarchy and organizational control, the very antithesis of social, informal and virtual networks.  If one’s goal is just to create havoc, then sure, a loose confederation of like-minded individuals acting semi-autonomously is fine.  But if your goal is explicit, specific and clear policy and governmental changes, then (citing examples like the NAACP), a clearly structured organization and chain of command is explicitly required.

He also does a fine job of pointing out the flaws of, if not completely tearing down, the arguments for the power of social media that are made in Smith and Aaker’s “The Dragonfly Effect” and Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody”.  My favorite nugget:

“ ‘Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,’ Aaker and Smith write.  But that’s not true.  Social networks are effective at increasing participation – by lessening the level of motivation that ‘participation’ requires.” 

Again, I won’t restate his whole argument here, it’s really worth it to read Gladwell’s piece.  And I say that because, (and here comes the potentially confusing part) I think he’s absolutely right. I think his critiques of the whole “social media will change the world” view is dead on in terms of the flaws he exposes in social media as a tool of organization for large scale social or revolutionary change.

So… HUH?  Didn’t I start this whole discussion saying Gladwell’s wrong?  Nope.  I said he missed the point.  Not the same thing at all.  He’s absolutely right that technology, social networks and the like will not likely play (and explicitly have NOT to date played), the role it’s cheerleaders have claimed.

Here’s the point I think he missed, and it was the core point of my own Revolution post, which perhaps I didn’t state explicitly enough.  Technology and social networks will not bring the tools and organization and strong ties required to bring people out in the face of the threat of physical force.  But let’s remember what gets people out in the street in the first place – a motivation to take the risk, something so inspiring, egregious or powerful it overcomes the collective inertia of not revolting.  And that is what technology can, and will, bring.

Gladwell is right that it took organization, strong ties, and deeply seated moral beliefs among both the black protesters and the white freedom riders and volunteers who eventually rose up to begin changing life for black Americans.  Twitter and YouTube can’t provide the ties, or the organizational structure.  What they can provide is the motivation, the evidence, the “why”.  How much sooner, and how many more, white supporters might have come, how many more black students might have sat in, if lynchings and beatings and rapes of black girls by white men had been caught on cellphone cameras and posted on YouTube.

What was the catalyst that started the Tunisian upheaval? One poor street vendor, despondent and disheartened to the point of self-immolation, became the (literal) match that lit the fuse of revolution.

Can Twitter or SMS really provide the the organizational structure and the belief systems to make thousands turn out in the face of arrest, imprisonment or worse and keep them focused on a long term goal or societal change?  Not at all.  Does it provide the strong familial or social ties that get folks to link arms in front of a machine gun?  Nope.  But…

Can it, in seconds and nearly unstoppably, communicate out to a million people the photo, video, report or account of an atrocity, injustice or societal wrong that will get them in the streets and provide the motivation to organize, reach out and engage one’s close ties?

It has (flip phone vid of Saddam Huessein being hanged anyone?), it can and it will.

Like I said, Gladwell wasn’t wrong, in fact I agree with his criticisms of the social-media evangelist set. Social media doesn’t play the role it’s cheerleaders claim.  On this, he’s right. I just think he’s arguing the wrong point.  I’ll close by repeating my own thought from the previous post, for whatever that’s worth.

If, and where, keeping the world from knowing “what’s really happening” is important to maintaining advantage, power or undeserved legitimacy,  the inability to keep the information genie in the bottle ever, at all, anywhere, is going to catch a whole lot of employers, governments and belief systems up short.

From cults to political parties to hate organizations to repressive regimes, the daylight is coming to shine on you and your beliefs.  If you cant say it out loud and in public without losing support, money or legitimacy, know that your days are numbered.  I think, whether in months or years, the end is nigh, and your doom will come not from jackbooted troops, police SWAT teams or even intrepid reporters, but in the form of the individual with a conscience and the cheap, ubiquitous camera phone.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are mine alone, and do not represent the views, policies or positions of Cyveillance, Inc. or its parent, QinetiQ-North America.  I speak here only for myself and no postings made on this blog should be interpreted as communications by, for or on behalf of, Cyveillance (though I may occasionally plug the extremely cool work we do and the fascinating, if occasionally frightening, research we openly publish.)

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