Malcolm Gladwell, Egypt, and Social Media

With all that is going on in Egypt and all over the rest of the Arab world, Malcolm Gladwell is focusing on the most important thing: He’s making sure nobody gives Twitter and Facebook too much credit for this, since we all know that social media is useless when it comes to affecting social change:

“But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice.”

Is there something weaker than straw? I am honestly flabbergasted that someone as bright as Gladwell wrote these words. NOBODY IS CLAIMING THAT SOCIAL MEDIA INVENTED SOCIAL PROTESTS. STOP ARGUING WITH A CLAIM NOBODY ON THE PLANET HAS EVER ONCE MADE. This is like saying, “People got from one place to another before cars. Our ancestors who crossed the Bering Straight had nothing but their own two feet! So who gives a shit about a cars?”

All people are saying about Facebook and Twitter is that they have been useful tools for the protestors, which seems undeniable. The Egyptian government certainly thought it was having enough of an effect to warrant blocking Twitter. It has also been helpful on communicating news of the effects and safety of these protests to the rest of the world. Gladwell may want to downplay the role of communicating information, as he did in his article in the fall, but it seems pretty hard to do that now. After all, it was information about the protests in Tunisia that helped motivate the Egyptian movement.

Gladwell doesn’t so much deny this as downplay it:

“People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

It’s hard for me to even really believe that Gladwell actually thinks this. After all, what has made him such a fascinating writer has been his interest in finding the logistical explanations for banal platitudes. After all, we all know that some people are driven to success, but what makes people successful? We all know that gut instincts are important, but why are they so important? We all know that some ideas just catch one, but how do they do it?

Similarly, it’s banal to say that oppressive governments are inevitably going to encounter resistance and violent protests, but why do some movements succeed while others fail? What tools do successful protests use? How do they differ from the ones that fail?

Gladwell may not find these issues interesting, but I certainly do. In fact, I think these questions would make a pretty great book. Now if only I could find someone willing to write it…

2 responses to this post.

  1. the real point is that pro vs anti ‘forces’ use the same methods. so, the egyptian ‘revolution’ took place within 1.5 years, while stages of french revolution may have been 12 years apart. but their oppressors (and all of surrounding society) hewed to a similarly faster|slower (respectively) timeline.
    this makes cellphones, wheeled transportation, etc. relatively neutral. (each technology’s relative usefulness is subject to ‘distributable’ or ‘micro’ qualities of the specific technology, but any era’s new tech includes the full range of mego and micro.)


  2. […] If you hadn’t heard of Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord and new Internet sensation, before last week, you almost certainly have by now, thanks to the video made by Invisible Children. Though Kony is certainly an evil man, there have been lots of questions raised about the video’s accuracy and intent, as well as the nature of online activism. (It’s only a matter of time before Malcolm Gladwell starts trashing it…) […]


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