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Posted at 10:53 AM ET, 02/ 4/2011

Malcolm Gladwell and the Twitter backlash

By David Nakamura
malcolm gladwell
On the left: Twitter in Egypt (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images) On the right: Malcolm Gladwell. (Joe Tabacca/AP)

Call it, as one Twitter commenter did, "The Slipping Point."

As news and reaction from the Tahrir Square protests have lit up social media sites, including Twitter, so too has a parallel stream of gloating from the Twitterati about how the historic demonstrations have proved prolific New Yorker writer, and social media skeptic, Malcolm Gladwell wrong.

Gladwell, the popular author of "The Tipping Point" and other books, penned a New Yorker column in October that cast doubt on the ability of social media networks to foment significant social change. Titled "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted," Gladwell's essay dumped cold water on claims that 2009 revolutions in Moldova and Iran were galvanized through such networks.

To Gladwell, social media "are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with." What mattered more, where activism was concerned, was people's strong personal ties to the causes and fellow protesters at hand.

To the Twitterverse, however, events in Egypt this week have proved Gladwell misguided. The protesters used Facebook and Twitter to help coordinate their events, and publicize the rallies, to such a degree that government officials moved to temporarily ban access to social networking site and the Internet.

On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) went so far as to say she was concerned that the CIA had missed signs of the budding demonstrations that were available on Facebook and other public Web sites used by organizers.

Let the gloating begin:

#Mubarak says he feels betrayed: "Malcolm Gladwell said this could never happen." #Egyptless than a minute ago via web

Take that, Malcolm Gladwell! Nobody ever made a sign that said "Thank you, fax machine!" http://t.co/kWId43yless than a minute ago via Twitter for Mac

Twitter will not stop protesting until Malcolm Gladwell leaves office.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

Even The Onion's parody newspaper Web site got into the action, casting a photo of a glum looking Gladwell under the headline: "Panicked Malcolm Gladwell Realizes Latest Theory Foretells End Of His Popularity".

What does Gladwell think of all this? We couldn't reach him, but he authored a short blog post this week, standing firmly behind his original theory:

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. 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.

Let us know, in 140 pithy characters or less, what you think of this debate.

By David Nakamura  | February 4, 2011; 10:53 AM ET
Categories:  The Daily Catch  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: "Demand Al-Jazeera in the USA" campaign
Next: Selected reader dispatches from Egypt

Comments

I think you mean 140 characters or fewer.

Posted by: SuperKG | February 4, 2011 2:34 PM | Report abuse

This article is very interesting and am surprised how a great writer like Malcolm Gladwell underestimated the power of social media networking.

In any case, people can go wrong in their line of thinking as the world of social media networking is changing at a furious pace. I presume social media sites like Twitter and Facebook after the dramatic events seen and experienced in Tunisia and Egypt can have an unimaginable reach globally.

I feel that Malcolm Gladwell should now start writing a book titled "Twitter Point"

Posted by: saysalim | February 4, 2011 3:24 PM | Report abuse

This article is very interesting and am surprised how a great writer like Malcolm Gladwell underestimated the power of social media networking.

In any case, people can go wrong in their line of thinking as the world of social media networking is changing at a furious pace. I presume social media sites like Twitter and Facebook after the dramatic events seen and experienced in Tunisia and Egypt can have an unimaginable reach globally.

I feel that Malcolm Gladwell should now start writing a book titled "Twitter Point"

Posted by: saysalim | February 4, 2011 3:25 PM | Report abuse

http://sarthanapalos.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/a-guide-how-not-to-say-stupid-stuff-about-egypt/

blog post about what not to say to egyptians regarding the protests. #6: don't call it a twitter revolution.

Posted by: yorio23 | February 4, 2011 9:23 PM | Report abuse

http://sarthanapalos.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/a-guide-how-not-to-say-stupid-stuff-about-egypt/

blog post about the egyptian protests. #6: don't call it a twitter revolution. i got your back, gladwell.

Posted by: yorio23 | February 4, 2011 9:24 PM | Report abuse

I would offer that perhaps the argument is not so much about "misunderstanding" social media as about "underestimating the power of" social media.

The human voice WAS the social medium of the French Revolution. Paul Revere on his horse was a social medium utilized in the American Revolution.

It's the 21st Century. We've walked on the moon, cloned calves, and brought human babies into the world courtesy of test tubes.

Twitter facilitates wider and faster dissemination of news and information. What's next? I certainly don't know, but I definitely will be watching in eager anticipation.

Posted by: CurryPRProf | February 5, 2011 3:30 PM | Report abuse

CurryPRProf, you have - perhaps inadvertantly - hit on the point Gladwell is making. Yes Paul Revere did use his voice and a horse to help spark an uprising. But as Gladwell himself has written there was another rider that night who did exactly the same thing as Revere yet roused no-one to action (I cant remember his name - lol). Gladwell explains the difference between that guy and Revere in one of his books. Basically, Revere succeeded because of his connections. Another man may very well have failed and one man DID fail. So the point is yes, there needs to be a means to communicate, but a means without those connections is useless and the connections are more interesting than the means. Its a simple point, and in some ways a subtle point. Its easy to see why there is confusion about what Gladwell is saying. But the facts speak for themselves - yes the new media helped, but the revolution in Egypt (if that is what it is) has continued conspicuously on days where the media has been absent. There is more to a successful revolution than just the media.

Posted by: tileux | February 6, 2011 1:39 AM | Report abuse

What exactly was proven about twitter by these protests? I back Gladwell, the twitter junkies are too quick to claim credit for an event that they cannot explain. And it still stands that the protests couldn't have happened in a vacuum. So twitter is a new form of communication, how does that fact by itself make Egypt more prone to protests? I think it is unfair to kick the ball back to Gladwell when his critics owe us a long and detailed explanation as to how exactly they were "proven right" but this event.

Posted by: goblin1 | February 8, 2011 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Gladwell's point was that no serious revolution could start just using internet petitions and by changing your profile picture on Facebook. And he remains correct. This entire uprising had nothing to do with Facebook and Twitter. They are the vehicles to continue to convey information, they had nothing to do with the organization.

Posted by: chimricholds | February 8, 2011 9:05 PM | Report abuse

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