The revolution will, or will not, be Tweeted

A heated debate is brewing online, following an essay written in the (tellingly offline) New Yorker magazine by Malcolm Gladwell titled “The revolution will not be tweeted.” You can read the full text on the New Yorker site, but the thrust of his argument is that real social revolution (as evidenced by numerous examples, particularly the Civil Rights Movement) occurs through ‘strong ties’, or meaningful offline and long standing friendships. Social media ‘celebrity’ causes, by contrast, happen through thousands of ‘weak ties’ – connections with many people who you may never have actually met, save for the odd Retweet or @reply.

Fundamentally, he argues, clicking to ‘like’ a Save Darfur Facebook page, or Retweeting #beatcancer to generate a 5c paypal donation may make you feel as if you’re making a difference, but compared to riding a freedom bus through the southern states during the 1960s, at genuine risk to your own life, it doesn’t really stack up. If anything, by lowering the motivation threshold to action, it may actually discourage people from pursing genuine change.

..there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

Predictably, this was followed by a backlash of heated online debate, both in support of, and refuting, Gladwell’s piece. Below is a round up of the replies.

Biz Stone (co founder of Twitter) writing in The Atlantic:

Rudimentary communication among individuals in real time allows many to move together as one–suddenly uniting everyone in a common goal. Lowering the barrier to activism doesn’t weaken humanity, it brings us together and it makes us stronger.

Evan Williams (co-founder of Twitter):

Anyone who’s claiming that sending a tweet by itself is activism, that’s ludicrous — but no one’s claiming that, at least no one that’s credible… If you can’t organize you can’t activate… I thought [the article] was entertaining but kind of pointless.

Paul Carr, writing on Techcrunch (in support of Gladwell):

In writing his rebuttal, Dixon neatly encapsulates two pervasive attitudes amongst bloggers and advocates of social media. The first of these is the knee-jerk impulse to defend social media against any attack, especially when it comes from someone who, as Dixon says of Gladwell “doesn’t seem to really use Twitter.

Then later, on Techcrunch, in a video interview with the author of Wikinomics, Don Tapscott:

Tapscott to Gladwell: “You’re Just Dead Wrong.”

There will no doubt be more to follow. I will endeavor to post them here. Feel free to weigh into the debate by posting your comments below..

2 Responses to “The revolution will, or will not, be Tweeted”

  1. Paul Gurney says:

    Hey Nick — useful exploration here, and interesting for sure. To continue with what we tweeted about, you’re right, Shankman and Gladwell make good and off-mark points.

    The one that struck me most from Gladwell’s was:

    >>>The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. <<<

    He's not accurate here, imho: no one I've read or know of believes that a FB friend is like a real friend; in fact, most writers decry the causual nature of friending, and the difficulty of targeting just "real" friends on their networks. And, people seem to get that tweeting about a cause is lesser activism; why can't there be degrees of it?

    I've got this same conversation thread going on via email; I'll post it soon, and cross-link.


  2. Nick Houldsworth says:

    It’s good to see the arguments out there. Balance is always good. When you spend so much of your day online, it’s nice to hear an alternate POV, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it.

    What disappointed me most about Gladwell’s piece was that, for a guy who is generally quite well observed, and diligent in his research, it read a little bit like a cranky old man who doesn’t really use or understand social media, and so sets about proving how fickle it is.

    It’s like a conversation with my father where I try to explain to him the plot of The Wire.

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