Thursday, 30 September 2010

Tweets Don't Cut It in the Revolution: Gladwell on Social Change and the "Networked" World

In this week's New Yorker, that other revolutionary Malcolm--Malcolm Gladwell, not Malcolm X--analyses why Twitter and the other Social Media don't mean much when it comes social change.

His thesis is simple--to accomplish something important you need people who are committed, organized and usually part of a formal structure where goals and strategies have been thrashed out. Most of all you need people who are willing to put their time, energies and sometimes even their lives on the line. His example is the first anti-segregation lunch counter sit-in in 1960, started by four young men who have much in common in age, education and with-it-ness with the young today who are flocking to the social media. But it took far more than simply knowing that a sit-in was occuring to start the wave of demonstrations that have brought significant change in the US.

He compares this action with another young man who recently started quite a stir when a friend left a fancy phone some place, where it was picked up by a young woman. Multitudes tweeted and facebooked and raised general trouble about the incident with the upshot that the phone was returned and the young woman was charged with theft.

Does this matter? Not much, he suggests.

"The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause."

He ends by saying that what happens next in this social network ages is not "future waves of digital protesters..(but) more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución."

Moral: Bling is no substitute for real political action.

(For more about Gladwell's truly interesting thoughts about how to really make social change see my review of his book Outliers.)

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