Malcolm Gladwell is sick and tired of hearing about the way social media will change the world for the better. In a lengthy article this week comparing online activism to the Civil Rights movement, The New Yorker scribe belittles Web 2.0’s importance as a tool for social change. “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls,” write Gladwell. “Viva la revolución.“
The best selling book author goes on to highlight some of the hyperbole lauded on these new services. He quotes Mark Pfeifle, a former national security advicer who said Twitter should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” wrote Pfeifle.
Gladwell sees this mostly as lazy, self aggrandizing journalism from bloggers like the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan. He quotes Golnaz Esfandiari, who wrote in Foreign Policy this June that, “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. Western journalists who couldn’t reach-or didn’t bother reaching-people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”
When you’re asking people to contribute only a little, writes Gladwell, these online services can be very powerful tools. But this is different than the kind of sacrifice required for real change. “Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists,” Gladwell write. “But 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.”
Gladwell is right that a lot of the rhetoric around social media activism is inflated and self serving. But he’s wrong to imply that a network of weak ties can’t accomplish serious change. One could argue, for example, that social media played a crucial role in electing our first black president, a historic moment in our nation’s struggle for equality.