Sunday, October 03, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker

In the October issue of the New Yorker there is an article called "Small Change, why the revolution will not be tweeted" by Malcolm Gladwell. I found this article to have all the typical good Gladwell qualities such as an interesting topic, a bit counter intuitive and also challenging mainstream ideas. In the article Gladwell  makes an interesting argument about social networks and their potential power to support or produce societal change. Gladwell makes the case that serious and real societal change can only be done through activism that is a different sort than what happens in social networks. He makes the case by contrasting "weak ties" with "strong ties" when it comes to relationships and friendships. He also contrast the "network" with the "hierarchy". The overall argument is that for real activism to happen the preconditions are the presence of strong ties and hierarchy, while social networks only provide weak ties and networks. I am quite sure that this article will produce a lot of discussions and I can see a lot of defenders of social network jumping on Gladwell's arguments. However, his argumentation is clear and straightforward and fact based so it will be difficult to find convincing counter arguments. I highly recommend the article.


Jofish said...

Erik -

Bit surprised to hear you say this. I was very disappointed with this article, mainly to the absence of facts and data. Quoting one journalist in Foreign Review and concluding that there was use or value of Twitter in Iran seems like a big jump to make me for me. I mean, there are data. There were a whole bunch of photos and videos coming off a whole bunch of phones in Iran, and I don't think you can ignore them or claim they're meaningless.

And while Gladwell does seem to be pointing this out, if not quite as explicitly as he might, I've always had a bit of a problem with Clay's example of how a bunch of rich Wall Street people used the power and free time of their rich friends to get some poor teenager in Queens arrested. I mean, I'm really not sure that's the kind of world I want to live in, and I'm even less sure that's the sort of thing I want to see exalted as the future.

So, overall, interesting, yes. Fact based? Straightforward? Eh.


Jofish said...

Sorry, that bit

>there was use or value of Twitter

should say

>there was NO use or value of Twitter

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Jofish

Thanks for reading the post and for some great comments! I think I agree with you when it comes to "facts". Why I find this article really interesting is not because of the facts or the evidence he presents, instead what I like is that he tries to come up with some kind of "theory" of what is needed for "real" activism to occur and what social networks offer. His attempt to come up with an explanation and "theory" is, to me, very straightforward (but you are right, not necessarily fact based).

If his theory is correct or not is an empirical question. I guess and hope we will see more studies in the future where theories like these will be empirically studied and not only based on re-telling of individual anecdotes and other interesting stories (which I agree is what Gladwell is good at :-)

Thanks again

Jofish said...

Erik -

Absolutely - I mean Gladwell is nothing if not good at telling stories, and I mean that as high praise. But I have a general policy of being suspicious of narratives which say "My generation did [foo]. But the Young Kids Today, they do [bar] and it's not as good as [foo]."

I do think he's got a point we can agree with - radical social change does not come about from people Liking things on Facebook or changing their profiles pics to green. But I think there's a lot of examples of social change from networked weak ties that he's not talking about - the rise of MoveOn, of DailyKos, and for that matter the Tea Party - and that's just in politics, which may or may not have anything to do with social change. And if I'm a blogger in Iran accessing Twitter through Tor, well, hell, the sight of random people turning their profiles green is going to make me, personally, pretty damn excited.

Of course, I also hope that you'll catch me complaining about how the Young People of Today don't do foo like we used to do foo, and how they waste their time doing bar...


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