Why Malcolm Gladwell is interesting, but wrong

Malcolm Gladwell’s piece a few years back for The New Yorker, Small Change – why the revolution will not be tweeted, set people debating over his dismissal of social networking’s ability to bring about change.

It’s come to my mind again recently because so much of the anti-Brexit campaigning, outside the Liberal Democrats at least, is digital in nature. Digital campaigning can certainly be very effective, but how much of an issue is it that so relatively little is being done to build grassroots offline campaigning against Brexit? Hence my thoughts returning to Gladwell’s piece.

As ever with Gladwell, the piece is an enjoyable read studded with interesting stories. But the argument does not stack up as Gladwell’s own core example in his article show.

Gladwell rightly praises the enormous courage of American civil rights campaigners such as the four black college students who sat down at a white’s only lunch table in Greensboro, North Carolina on 1 February 1960 thereby triggering a massive wave of protests against segregation.

Their brave physical presence achieved far more than an email, tweet or status update. As Gladwell also points out, behind their initial action and its knock-on effects were deep personal relationships. He documents how the four knew each other, with various mixes of sharing schooling and rooming together at college. All four “would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night”. That was the background that gave them the mutual support to be so brave.

But wait – think again about the reference to smuggling beer and late night alcohol fuelled chat. Take either of those out of this context and they look pretty trivial and decidedly non-revolution inducing. Late night drinking sessions changing the world? Alcohol the key tool for bringing about positive social change? Yeah right, you might think.

Yet Gladwell’s whole point is that it is these sorts of personal bonds that provide the fuel for changing the world. In his terminology, strong ties between people are required for bringing about major change, yet social networking’s forte is developing weak ties between people.

However, weak ties can create the strong ties, if repeated – just as one late night drinking session can turn into deep friendships, if repeated.

And those lightweight encounters which can build into something more are just the sort of encounters that social networking, including Twitter, excels at. The buzzing back and forth of instant messages, the sharing of photos of your cats, the tweets about being caught in the rain after your train was cancelled. They all can fulfil exactly the same role as alcohol and late-night chats did for the quartet that Gladwell praises so rightly.

Social media can take many forms, not all of it productive, much of it trivial and some it downright unpleasant. So too can late night drinking. But as Gladwell himself points out, that doesn’t mean it cannot also have profound effects.

2 responses to “Why Malcolm Gladwell is interesting, but wrong”

  1. Exactly the same role? No. A slightly similar role? Well, maybe. Meeting regularly in the dorm against a backdrop of violent exclusion means face-to-face intimacy, understanding and empathy in the context of a shared place, shared college experience, exposure to the same prejudices and people, ability to provide mutual protection and support in the teeth of very real physical risk. Facebook? Yeh, well……

  2. I don’t believe that virtual contacts can totally replicate the closeness of real contacts, at least with present technology or anything likely to be widely available in the next twenty years. Subliminally, we respond to certain stimuli. Real contacts such as meeting in the pub are more likely to open up new areas of someone else’s identity: “I’m late because…” and a whole new field opens up. Virtual contacts are too easily terminated: this is getting boring, I don’t like what you said about X, I didn’t know you were a Y, I just haven’t got time for this; whereas contacts in the pub, in the office, walking the dog, at the track continue and we often get over the blip.

    Surely yes, virtual campaigning is powerful, but it has marked disadvantages. It tends to lack the staying power of conventional pressure groups and political parties: example, the fate of the Arab Spring compared to armies, commercial companies and groups like the Moslem Brotherhood. It’s power structure is usually opaque: the average activist has no idea who’s taking the key decisions and no way of checking whether the result of the online consultation has been accurately reported. Mysterious people ask questions the masses answer. I suspect the most effective campaigning organisations will work out how to mix both worlds.

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