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Posts tagged with ‘malcolm gladwell’

If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one—and if it isn’t, then almost no one can.

Duncan Watts, cited by Clive Thompson in Is The Tipping Point Toast?

Anything to undo the baloney that Gladwell has spread around.

We are free to disagree with Gladwell over what is more or less “interesting” about the Egyptian uprising. But he has continued in one crucial misapprehension that is worth correcting: the Egyptian protesters are not just “using some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.” They are using Twitter to take their case outside Egypt; to document their own experiences truthfully and fairly, themselves, before governments and big media can get a chance to put their spin on everything.

Revolution = Messiness At Scale, Again

Ingram picks up on the flimsy reasoning in Gladwell’s recent redux of his ‘Twitter is no revolutionary tool’ argument:

Mathew Ingram, Gladwell Still Missing the Point About Social Media and Activism

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:

Does Egypt Need Twitter?

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.

Student protests: national walkout live

Today, thousands of students are expected to take to the streets for the second time in a fortnight in protest at plans to raise tuition fees and scrap the education maintenance allowance.

More than 25,000 college and university students across the UK have signed up to a Facebook page organising a co-ordinated walkout from classes at 11am.

Scores more regional groups have sprung up and are organising their own events, amid signs that the scale of the London protest has emboldened the wider student movement.

Many of the largest demonstrations are expected to take place in cities with big student populations such as Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and London, but hundreds of students – many of them sixth-formers or in further education – have also organised protests in towns across the UK.

[…]

On Comment is Free, Laurie Pennie has a report from the midst of the protests in London. She writes:

There are no leaders here: the thousands of schoolchildren and young people who streamed into Whitehall three hours ago in protest at the government’s attacks on further and higher education were working completely off script.

A wordless cry went up somewhere in the crowd and they were off, moving as one, with no instructions, towards parliament.

But just because there are no leaders here doesn’t mean there is no purpose. These kids – and most of them are just kids, with no experience of direct action, who walked simultaneously out of lessons across the country just before morning break – want to be heard. “Our votes don’t count,” says one nice young man in a school tie.

I wonder what Gladwell has to say about this wave of civil disobedience, which is based on online networks?

The Unrevolution? A Logical Disquisition.

Nick Carr takes a swipe at business book authors who talk about what’s going on with the web as a revolution while at the same time suggesting that conventional business might be able to eke some coin out of it, too. This juxtaposition of thoughts supposedly invalidates the claim that it’s a revolution. The books in question — Steve Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, Tapscott’s Macrowikinomics and What’s Yours Is Mine by Botsman and Rogers — fail because of this self-defeating contradiction, or so he argues:

Nicholas Carr, The unrevolution

What most characterizes today’s web revolutionaries is their rigorously apolitical and ahistorical perspectives - their fear of actually being revolutionary. To them, the technological upheaval of the web ends in a reinforcement of the status quo. There’s nothing wrong with that view, I suppose - these are all writers who court business audiences - but their writings do testify to just how far we’ve come from the idealism of the early days of cyberspace, when online communities were proudly uncommercial and the free exchanges of the web stood in opposition to what John Perry Barlow dismissively termed “the Industrial World.” By encouraging us to think of sharing as “collaborative consumption” and of our intellectual capacities as “cognitive surplus,” the technologies of the web now look like they will have, as their ultimate legacy, the spread of market forces into the most intimate spheres of human activity.

This is an echo of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent unartful protest against the social revolution online (see Weak Ties And revolutions (With A Little ‘R’)), where he bellyflopped by arguing that real revolutions don’t tweet, instead they have central committees handing down diktats, and anything that doesn’t walk and talk like his favorite examples of revolutions, aren’t.

But Carr tries to pull off an appeal to hypocrisy. He makes the case that a cadre of authors (Steven Berlin Johnson, Clay Shirky, Tapscott, and many others) have argued that there are large extra-market motivations for people’s participation in open web movements: many are not in it for the money. So, when a web advocate mentions that plain vanilla capitalist interest can also be served by the web revolution, Carr implies that this is inconsistent with their first assertion in some way, and therefore the entire edifice of the argument is illogical, and ipso facto, the notion that this is a revolution, upsetting the status quo, falls on it’s face.

This is like saying that kittens born in an oven are muffins, however.

Carr’s argument is specious, and we can all go back to reading the morning paper or walking the dog. Just because some capitalists can benefit from Linux, crowdsourcing, or the existence of the blogosphere doesn’t mean that nothing new and different is happening online.

Perhaps this is just another proof of The Law of the Infinite Cornucopia, dreamed up by Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski: there is a limitless supply of arguments for any viewpoint. Those who want to believe what’s going on online is just reheated leftovers will never stop their finger wagging.

What Do Malcolm Gladwell And Kleiner Perkins Have In Common?

Chris Dixon starts by suggesting that Malcolm Gladwell might lack a deep understanding of Twitter, and that led him to an unsupportable argument in his recent ‘the rvolution will not be tweeted’ piece. In a nutshell that real revolutions require hierarchical control and strong ties, and that Twitter doesn’t have that or support it (I have a longer version of this, too, called Weak Ties And revolutions (With A Little ‘R’).)

But then Chris goes on to suggest that others might have a similar lack of understanding of the social revolution going on:

Chris Dixon, You need to use social services to understand them

I made some jokes on Twitter the past few days about Kleiner Perkins’ new social fund. These were meant to be lighthearted: I only know one person at KP and from everything I’ve seen they seem to be smart, friendly people. But underneath the jokes lies a real issue: the partners there don’t seem to really participate in social services (something they only underscored by announcing their new fund at a press conference that targeted traditional media outlets).

I’d love to engage in a debate with smart people like Gladwell about the impact of the social web on culture, politics, activism and so on. I also think it’s great to see savvy investors like KP allocate significant resources to the next wave of social web innovation. But it’s hard for me to take them seriously when they don’t seem to take their subject matter seriously.

I agree that knowing where to invest in this market will require deep understanding, and one of the places that can be gained is through usage. Regarding the fund, I am betting it will do no better than the market as a whole.

In The Shadow Of Big Lies And Big Money

Malcolm Gladwell’s supposed takedown of social networks — they aren’t really revolutionary, he argues — continues to be paired up with ‘The Social Network’ as a one-two punch smack in the kisser of the web. Buried in the newest of these, an Op-Ed by Frank Rich, is a painful truth: for all the talk of transparency, openness, and change on the web, these tools haven’t slowed ‘big lies and big money’ in the American political circus:

Frank Rich, Facebook Politicians Are Not Your Friends

Just as “The Social Network” hit the multiplexes, Malcolm Gladwell took to The New Yorker with a stinging takedown of social networks as vehicles for meaningful political and social action. He calculated that the nearly 1.3 million members of the Facebook page for the Save Darfur Coalition have donated an average of 9 cents each to their cause. He mocked American journalists’ glorification of Twitter’s supposedly pivotal role during last year’s short-lived uprising in Iran, suggesting that the rebels’ celebrated Twitter feeds — written in English, not Farsi — did more to titillate blogging technophiles in the West than to aid Iranians in their struggle against totalitarian rulers.

“With Facebook and Twitter and the like,” Gladwell wrote, “the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will” was supposed to be upended, so it would be “easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.” Instead, he concluded, we ended up with the reverse: social media increase the efficiency of the existing order rather than empowering dissidents. In his view, social networking is far less likely to recreate the civil rights movement of the 1960s than to track down missing cellphones for Wall Streeters.

Gladwell’s provocative Internet critique is complemented by a much-buzzed-about independent movie — in this case, an actual documentary — that was released shortly before “The Social Network.” No one will confuse this ham-fisted film, titled “Catfish,” with a Fincher-Sorkin production, but it’s highly unsettling nonetheless. It tells of a 25-year-old Manhattan photographer who strikes up a devoted Facebook friendship with a small-town Michigan family whose 8-year-old daughter is a painting prodigy. When the photographer seeks out his virtual friends in the real Michigan, it’s inevitable that he and the audience will learn the hard way, as the Times film critic A.O. Scott put it, that cyberspace is a “wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is.”

Even if Gladwell and “Catfish” are overstating the case, they certainly have one if you look at the political environment in our election year of 2010. The Internet in general and social networking in particular have done little, if anything, to hobble those pursuing power with such traditional means as big lies and big money. Perhaps what’s most remarkable this year is the number of candidates who have tried to create fictitious avatars like the Facebook impostors in “Catfish.” These candidates and others often fashion their campaigns to avoid real reporters (and sometimes real voters). Some benefit from YouTube commercials paid for by impossible-to-trace anonymous donors. In this wild political ether where nobody knows who anybody is, the Internet provides cover, not transparency.

Go online, and you’ll discover that many of those now notorious false fronts for oil billionaires and other corporate political contributors have Facebook pages. We don’t know who has written checks to Crossroads GPS, the more shadowy wing of American Crossroads, the operation concocted in part by Karl Rove to raise $50 million to attack Democrats. (There’s already $32 million in the bank, $10 million more than was spent by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.) But the American Crossroads page on Facebook sure looks like a bottom-up populist movement, festooned with photos of thousands of ordinary folk voting their “like” of the site. The Save Darfur Coalition page may have infinitely more friends, but it’s American Crossroads that has real clout in the real world even if nobody knows who is behind the screen.

The web is powerful, but can be used to herd opinion based on faulty reasoning just as well as it can open people’s eyes to new perspectives.

Honestly, the web is dangerous. I don’t mean in the way most people worry about it — bullying teenagers into suicide, or deranged stalkers or burglars taking advantage of Foursquare check-ins — but on the contrary, to use the cracks in out cognitive wiring to control our behavior.

Fear mongering, xenophobia, and ignorance are all at work in the efforts of politicians to herd people off a cliff at the next election, using the body count as a way to get into office.

So, if the web isn’t a benign force ushering in the age of Aquarius maybe it is bad, the commentators are saying. But this is just holding up a mirror: we created the web to happen to ourselves, and what comes of it is up to us.

Our prejudices, cognitive limitations, and ignorance aren’t magically fixed by networking us together. There is mounting evidence that the social web is an amplifier, but the behavior you put in to be amplified can be from any slice in the human condition.

As my friend Jamais Cascio once remarked, there will someday be a hashtag used during atrocities in a genocide somewhere. But we won’t blame the hashtag, or hashtags in general.

The web isn’t just patty cake and beanbag, and it’s no longer some sidebar to human events: it is deeply enmeshed in everything, like nervous tissue is spread throughout all our bodies.

But we don’t wonder about the inherent downside of gray matter just because it is implicated in depression, hate, murder and deception.

So let’s turn our focus back on the actual groups and individuals who benefit from concealing their identities and true purposes — like Crossroads GPS — and stop scapegoating the web and social network applications. You might as well blame ink and paper for the printing of hate literature, or the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo.

At the same time, I would like to see more slimy doings exposed, and nefarious actors pulled out from under the rocks. Hey, Frank: you work for the New York Times! Should the Times be doing more, using the web as a tool of investigation, and rallying people to counter the herding going on by Fox News and the Koch brothers?

Louis Brandeis said ‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant,’ and our activities online can cast a shining light: but the brightest lights cast the darkest shadows.

In the shadows of the web we will continue to find big lies and big money, trying to control us, and herd us. To them, the web is just more wool to pull over our eyes.

Malcolm Gladwell’s take on social media is like a nun’s likely review of the Kama Sutra — self-righteous and misguided by virtue of voluntary self-exclusion from the subject. But while the nun’s stance reflects adherence to a moral code, Gladwell’s merely discloses a stubborn opinion based on little more than a bystander’s observations.

Weak Ties And revolutions (With A Little ‘R’)

27 September 2010:

Malcolm Gladwell wants to pop the bubble surround social media’s supposed role in capital ‘R’ Revolutions, as in the #iranelections.

I think the real story is in lower case ‘r’ revolutions, but here’s his core thesis:

Malcolm Gladwell, Twitter, Facebook, and social activism

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change. “You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A. T. & T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, Glassman said, “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet.’ That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.”

These are strong, and puzzling, claims. Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all? As for Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution, Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist. Nor does it seem to have been a revolution, not least because the protests—as Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Post—may well have been a bit of stagecraft cooked up by the government. (In a country paranoid about Romanian revanchism, the protesters flew a Romanian flag over the Parliament building.) In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

Luckily, Gladwell is here to help us remember what activism is (wink). He lays some solid research into the top-down command-and-control of the Montgomery bus boycott, and contrasts that with the weak ties inherent in online social networks, and concludes — perhaps a bit too hastily — that social tools can’t possibly be instrumental in revolutions like the civil rights movement, which was based on a top-down organization:

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. 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.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Well, they haven’t in the past, perhaps in part because these tools have only existed for a few years. Certainly, Martin Luther King and the civil rights leaders didn’t have them as an option.

His other anecdotes — pulled from Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody — are not serious counter examples: they are tales about people looking for their lost cell phones, or trying to get bone marrow donors: not anything revolutionary.

Ultimately his piece relies on the reader: if you buy his argument, he’s made his case. But I believe that we will have to wait for deeper research into the shape and arc of today’s revolutions, which increasingly are likely to be diffused, like networks, and relying on weak ties.

Consider the use of cell phone minutes as a currency in Kenya as a means of getting around high banking charges. This is a revolution for the poor people there, and is linked to social networks connected by cell phones. This became critically important when the country was wracked by violence in 2008, and it became dangerous to carry money and nearly impossible to send it to relatives.

And an example of a little r revolution, more close to home: the Tea Partiers. Yes, I know there are some fat cats bank rolling some aspects of the Tea Party, but mostly it looks like a grass roots revolution that is remaking (or unmaking?) the GOP. Leaving aside their agenda, its evident that weak tie networks, supported by social tools online, are at the core of that movement’s startling rise to prominence, without a central command-and-control structure. In fact, it looks a lot like his characterization of the Palestine Liberation Organization:

The Palestine Liberation Organization originated as a network, and the international-relations scholars Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones argue in a recent essay in International Security that this is why it ran into such trouble as it grew: “Structural features typical of networks—the absence of central authority, the unchecked autonomy of rival groups, and the inability to arbitrate quarrels through formal mechanisms—made the P.L.O. excessively vulnerable to outside manipulation and internal strife.”

Given my personal political views, I hope that the Tea Party movement suffers the problems of starting out as a network, but looked at dispassionately, their internal lack of a top-down control structure hasn’t stopped their impact on the American political system.

I think Gladwell needs to look at the little r revolutions going on all around us, like the urban food movement, Grameen-style microloan systems, and others. This is where social tools will change the world, one weak tie at a time.

Update 2 October 2010

It looks like people finally had their copies of the New Yorker delivered, like David Weinberger who agrees with my use of the Tea Party as an example of recent small ‘r’ revolutionary activities via social tools:

David Weinberger, Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government

Gladwell is right, in my view, to debunk the over-enthusiastic belief that the Net would sweep away all traditional institutions that stand in the way of the great populist uprising.

He is also right to debunk the notion that the Net would replace all traditional forms of governance and organization.

At this point, however, those are strawpeople. Find me someone who believes that these days.

The more plausible belief is that for the most entrenched of institutions, the Net has an effect by changing the ecology around them. So, citizen journalism has not obviated the need for professional journalism and traditional news media. Rather, a new symbiotic ecology (hmm, mixing metaphors) has arisen. Likewise, amateur scientists have not replaced professional scientists and their institutions, but the new ecology allows for the interaction of everyone with an interest, and this is changing how science is done, how it is evaluated, and how it has an effect. Likewise, the Dean campaign — and every national campaign after it — understood that it was not enough to have a social network, but that that network must be moved to take action out in the real streets of America.

Likewise, I venture that few believe that Facebook or Twitter on their own is going to bring about revolutionary political change. But that doesn’t mean that political change is unaffected by them. As the Tea Party looks like it’s rolling to victory in 2010, try to imagine that it could exist much less succeed without social media. It also needed money from Big Interests, the attention of mainstream media, and non-Net communication channels. But, who is arguing otherwise? The ecology has changed.

And also Leo Mirani of the Guardian, who uses the Kashmir crisis as a counterexample to Gladwell’s dismissals:

in claiming that all social networks are good for is “helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teenage girls”, Gladwell ignores the true significance of social media, which lies in their ability to rapidly spread information about alternative points of view that might otherwise never reach a large audience. Gladwell quotes Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy as asking why “no one seemed to wonder why people trying to co-ordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi”. The answer, as supplied by a friend from Tehran in June last year, is simple: “We need to be seen and heard by the world, we need all the support we can get. If the governments [of the west] refuse to accept the new government, it’s gonna be meaningful for the movement, somehow.”

A more recent example is Kashmir, where this summer’s protests gained widespread media coverage both in India and internationally. But Kashmir has been protesting for 20 years, with some of the biggest demonstrations occurring in 2008. What changed this year is that urban, middle-class India, traditionally uninterested in news from Kashmir except when we’re at war with Pakistan, was for the first time able to see and hear the other side of the story. Facebook users in India rose from 0.7 million in summer 2008, to 3 million in 2009, to 13 million today.

On Twitter, it is possible to follow journalists tweeting live from Srinagar. On Facebook, it is hard to avoid mentions of Kashmir or links to articles on websites you wouldn’t otherwise have heard of. YouTube is littered with videos of protests in Kashmir. And when clips of human rights violations are taken down, Facebook is where you find new links.

The mainstream press in India, like its middle-class readers, is nationalistic and unquestioning on the subject of Kashmir. Allegations of human rights abuses are rarely reported, let alone investigated. But this year, even the Times of India, purveyor of “sunshine news”, published a report claiming that for the first time, more civilians in Kashmir had been killed by the Indian state than by militants.

"We seem to have forgotten what activism is," writes Gladwell. If activism is defined only as taking direct action and protesting on the streets, he might be right. But if activism extends to changing the minds of people, to making populations aware of what their governments are doing in their name, to influencing opinion across the world, then the revolution will be indeed be tweeted.

update 2 October 2010

Emily Yoffe on Facebook

It’s a bit swarmy, in that Sunday supplement style that ‘slice of life’ journalists employ like a long stick so they can poke at things that attract and repel them at the same time. However, Joffe’s experiences in fiddling with Facebook are actually pretty dead-on:

[from I’m fiftysomething, and I’m joining Facebook. You got a problem with that? - By Emily Yoffe - Slate Magazine]

You know how in The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell describes the person he calls a “connector”—the charming, gregarious individual who knows everyone and makes things happen? I’m the opposite of that person. Even within my small circle, I’m always falling out of touch, and I never know what’s going on. But finally, there seemed to be a solution to my isolation that didn’t require me to actually go out and see people. Facebook, the three-year-old, 17-million-member social-networking site once the exclusive province of students, recently opened to anyone. The site has so addictively insinuated itself into the daily lives of those under the age of about 24 that academics are studying how it is changing the very nature of their social interactions. I decided to see if someone old enough to remember when answering machines were a radical communication breakthrough could find someone, anyone, among those 17 million willing to connect with me …

In between the lines she suggests that social networks can actually make our lives richer, by helping us remain connected with those far away, and that we can discover connections with new people. No revolutionary rhetoric, but an almost bland send-up of what is proving to be one of the largest mass movements in the history of civilization.

[Pointer: Sebastian Hirsch]


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