Gladwell Denies Social Media Any Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell Malcolm Gladwell’s been wrong before, when he disagreed with Chris Anderson’s thesis in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. But this time, it’s a little stranger… this time I have to wonder what he’s thinking in his latest piece, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” where he discounts social networks, saying they cannot product the kind of passion necessary to drive social change because they really only affect weak ties issues.

I guess I’m not the only one who’s baffled. In a Guardian article responding to Gladwell’s, Clay Shirky is quoted as calling it “a weird article,” saying that

the book that has done most to explain to the public how weak ties could spread the kind of political fever that Gladwell writes about is The Tipping Point, [yet] he seems to have committed himself to the idea that they don’t, that social networks are useless for spreading the ‘fever’ he was talking about, or for recruiting those who had caught the ‘fever’.

It isn’t that Gladwell has to tout the beauty of social networking, but it seems just a little odd for him to adopt a stance that is diametrically opposed to what he argued so effectively in The Tipping Point. He seems somewhat out of touch with some of the social change already wrought in the new digital economy of plenty.

Can social media change the world? It already has. Perhaps it remains to be seen what kind of sweeping political change it can effect — unless you count the election of President Obama — but social media is still a relatively young phenomenon, and it’s far to early to discount what can be made of its future. Gladwell errs in critiquing a hypothetical past, implying that Tweets from a Birmingham Jail wouldn’t have made a difference. I don’t agree, largely because of the glaring anachronism. Would letters from a prison cell today get as much attention as tweets from that same cell? You’ve got to match the medium to the right era in order to give it any kind of proper consideration.

Oh, and every time one of these articles comes up, someone makes the assumption that social media advocates think that an online friend is the same as a face-to-face one. For the record, that’s a straw man argument, and is a tactic Gladwell employs in this latest piece. For more than a decade, I’ve had friends that I’ve referred to as e-quaintances, and I’ve got no confusion about the level of relationship implied by the mere click of a button. This, you will find, is common among pretty much all social media advocates.

Deny Gladwell the hypothetical anachronism and the straw man in this particular article, and it falls flat. I think Social Media does have a tipping point. Skeptics might want to be on the lookout for Erik Qualman‘s soon-to-be-released book, Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business.