Context, and Confusion – Reflections on Gladwell’s Latest

Malcolm Gladwell

(Wiki/Twitter activism) is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. 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.
(Malcolm Gladwell, from his latest…)

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I am a big fan of the whole social media, Twitter revolution, Wikinomics era thing going on.

I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell.  (I’ve presented his first three books at the First Friday Book Synopsis).

Help!

In Wikinomics:  How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (I can’t wait to read Tapscott’s new book!), we learn that there is a whole new world out there from the connections, put everything up there and out there on the web, approach to innovation.

So – Twitter, wiki, everybody gets access, everybody gets connected, is the answer to all of our problems.  Right?

Not so fast.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest is: Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. He acknowledges that Twitter, and the whole new world, has its place.  Its place is just limited.  When you want a real revolution, it won’t provide what we need.

In the article, Gladwell contrasts the massive work behind the scenes in the Civil Rights era 50 years ago to the environment of today.  Consider these excerpts:

These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.

Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

The platforms of 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. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life

But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Gladwell reminds us that the people who sat at lunch counters in the 60’s were literally tempting some goons to bash their heads in – and some of the heads were bashed in.  It took a lot of preparation, a lot of serious organization, a lot of courage – not “weak ties,” but very, very strong ties.  Twitter wasn’t needed, and would not have been enough to pull this off.

In the world of politics, there is a new observation developing, which Gladwell alludes to.  People who read blogs and even write in blogs are under the impression that they are involved, they are activists, changing the world.  But the evidence is not yet backing this up.

Here’s what I think.  Gladwell is a master at raising the right question – a master of tapping into the Zeitgeist, saying just the right things at the right time.  I’ve read this new article carefully – even as I have just thrown Tapscott’s new book, Macrowikinomcs, into my “I should present this book” mix.  Let’s just say that I am trying to figure out just what Twitter and the new world can – and cannot – accomplish.

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Read Gladwell’s article here.  It’s worth the time.

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