Malcolm Gladwell on Social Networks

October 23, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell – one of my favourite authors – is in the news again with his October 4, 2010 New Yorker article entitled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted”.  The article is worth reading in full (and is freely available online, at least for a while), but here is a good summary of Gladwell’s important conclusions (from his final two paragraphs):

[Clay] Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it 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.

Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, “What happens next?”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is 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.

There has been, as they say, lots of “conversation” about Gladwell’s article, including a New York Times discussion section entitled “Can Twitter Lead People to the Streets?”, a New Yorker on-line chat with Gladwell (one of the most interesting parts of this is Gladwell’s admission that he does not follow Twitter – too much else to read, he says), and articles in the Atlantic Monthly, among others.  Gladwell also makes reference to the (just published book) The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change, by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith (Jossey Bass).  (Note this link is to the Australian publisher page for the book.)  The blog from these authors (whose book, is criticised, in part in Gladwell’s article) has followed the discussion.

Useful reading.

Separate note: The Social Network film opens in Australia next Thursday, October 28th, so more on that later.