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 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.