Ingram picks up on the flimsy reasoning in Gladwell’s recent redux of his ‘Twitter is no revolutionary tool’ argument:
After weeks of discussion in the blogosphere over whether what happened in Tunisia was a “Twitter revolution,” and whether social media also helped trigger the current anti-government uprising in Egypt, author Malcolm Gladwell — who wrote a widely-read New Yorker article about how inconsequential social media is when it comes to “real” social activism — has finally weighed in with his thoughts. But he continues to miss the real point about the use of Twitter and Facebook, which is somewhat surprising for the author of the best-seller The Tipping Point.
Gladwell’s tone is bizarrely anti-modernist:
Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But 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.
This argument is motivated by a desire to square his pitch of social tools as being inadequate support for revolutionary activity, as he advanced in his Small Change piece last fall. He argued then that revolutions needed to be controlled through strong ties — like Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Civil Rights movement.
Mark Ingram continues, citing Zeynep’s Tufecki’s discussion of strong and weak ties in a rebuttal of Galdwell’s Small Change arguments:
But as sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci argues in a blog post responding to Gladwell — and as we argued in a recent post here — the point is not that social media tools like Twitter and Facebook cause revolutions in any real sense. What they are very good at doing, however, is connecting people in very simple ways, and making those connections in a very fast and widely-distributed manner. This is the power of a networked society and of cheap, real-time communication networks.
Weak ties can also connect to and become strong ties
As Tufekci notes, what happens in social networks is the creation of what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties” in a seminal piece of research in the 1970s (PDF link) — that is, the kinds of ties you have to your broader network of friends and acquaintances, as opposed to the strong ties that you have to your family or your church. But while Gladwell more or less dismissed the value of those ties in his original New Yorker piece, Tufekci argues that these weak ties can become connected to our stronger relationships, and that’s when real change — potentially large-scale global change — can occur.New movements that can bring about global social change will still require people who interact with each other regularly, and trust and depend on each other in somewhat dense networks. Or only hope is if those networks span the globe in a tightly-knit, broad web of activity, interaction, personalization. Real change will come only if we can make friends we care about everywhere and we make bridge ties that cover the world in a web of common humanity.
Trufecki and Ingram are on to something, but they — and Gladwell — miss something very basic about the nature of Twitter and other social tools, something critical to revolution. Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread.
The Granovetter distinctions between strong and weak ties are not as relevant in this context as the density of connections in the network.
When people are connected to a large number of other people through a real-time social medium like Twitter, information and ideas will travel faster across the population than when people are connected to a smaller number of people. And, more importantly, increased density of information flow (the number of times that people hear things) and of the emotional density (as individuals experience others’ perceptions about events, or ‘social contextualization’) leads to a increased likelihood of radicalization: when people decide to join the revolution instead of watching it.
This is another example of messiness at scale, which is why we find the most vibrant art scenes in large cities, and why technology regions — like Silicon Valley and New York City — where network connections are rich and dense, lead to the highest innovation. With a sufficient degree of connections, change and innovation can become superlinear, meaning that adding more people to the network increases the possibilities for additional change and innovation at a rate faster than the increase of the network. It’s like critical mass in nuclear explosions.
These are all revolutions, although what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia, and other locales are political ones. They all require social density — one element of messiness at scale — to act as the matrix in which they grow.
Gladwell is right, that older revolutions relied on different tools, like newspapers and telephones, to reach the necessary social densities so that people would be radicalized.
But the fact that other revolutions used other tools does not mean that the tools used today aren’t instrumental, and doesn’t mean that the inherent character of today’s tools — real-time, distributed, decentralized — hasn’t had a major impact on the movements it supports. On the contrary: the Egyptian revolution has no central planning, no cadre surrounding a Mao-like figure up in the hills, no government-in-exile pulling the strings. It is as messy and diffuse as a thousand swarms of angry bees.
Gladwell and others will continue to miss what is happening, out in the open, because they deny the nature of social culture. At its core, Gladwell’s arguments are not about the way revolutions work, but a denial of the strength of social culture: the culture that the social web is engendering, wherever it touches us. Wherever we connect.