Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Recently one of the Urban Politico's favorite authors Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Outliers, published an article in the New Yorker discussion the Twitter/Social Networking revolution, in the context of how it fits into activism in today's society. This article sparked a pretty significant debate as techies and twitter activists defended these tools as viable means of rallying together large groups of people in the context of revolution and social activism. The article even inspired Angus Johnston of the Huffington Post to publish a counter argument. 

The point of Gladwell's argument was that social networking focuses on perpetuating week ties, which do not allow for significant action beyond comments and thumbs up buttons. Today the New Yorker's website hosted an Ask The Author chat with Gladwell as he discussed Twitter and Social Networking and answered questions from the audience. We have provided our readers a copy of the transcript from the chat in hopes of stirring up a similar debate with our readers. The discussion was quite interesting and the topic equally as interesting.

After reading Gladwell's article and/or this transcript, what are your thoughts on twitter and Facebook as a means of helping create significant change in our society?

The New Yorker: 
Malcolm Gladwell will be joining us shortly. For now, please submit your questions.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 2:55 The New Yorker
Malcolm Gladwell: 
hello everyone!
Wednesday September 29, 2010 2:58 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From natekim92natekim92: ] 
One of my college goals is to speak with Malcom Gladwell, so this is an amazing opportunity. How effectively can, the philanthropic start-up by Facebook’s co-founder, cause social change and activism? Will a platform for non-profits substantially increase participation/funds? And as a freshman at UC Berkeley, how can I create a tipping point for social service within my community?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 2:58 natekim92
[Comment From GabyGaby: ] 
Do you think Twitter is good for ANYthing?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 2:59 Gaby
Malcolm Gladwell: 
let's start with the second question. Is twitter good for anything? Sure. It's a great way to keep in touch with the thoughts and activities and random observations of people who have a twitter account. That's not a trivial accomplishment.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:00 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From thekevinyuthekevinyu: ] 
Sites like AOL and Myspace have come and gone, my question is, what do you think Facebook and Twitter will become in the future? And do you think the next big "networking" site will have the power to facilitate social activism, or is this medium simply too distant to be effective?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:00 thekevinyu
Malcolm Gladwell: 
I honestly have no idea what Facebook and Twitter will look like down the road--and nor does anyone else. The essential fact of the internet is that nothing is permanent. AOL was once the king of online--remember? I doubt that anything that is done electronically will facilitate social activism all that much--at least not unless you've put a real world structure in place first.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:02 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From Nathan DuffyNathan Duffy: ] 
Isn't the force of the social activism that was necessary during the CRM different from the type seen today because of a different type of problem (rather than because of different means/techniques for mobilizing and addressing the problems)? There is no real modern analog for the the CRM because there is no modern problem that is similar in form or scale.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:02 Nathan Duffy
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Interesting question. Is the environmental/global warming movement analogous? It certainly involves a similar kind of uphill battle against the status quo. Outside of the United States, though, I think there are plenty of very similar kinds of battles being fought.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:03 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From BGoslowBGoslow: ] 
What role can Twitter plan in helping ensure the future of newspapers and magazines?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:04 BGoslow
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Twitter will save newspapers once newspapers become capable of telling their stories in 140 characters. Embarassed
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:05 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From Travis W. GillisonTravis W. Gillison: ] 
Hi, Malcolm. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to discuss social media. I'm in the information technology profession, so this usage of the Internet is highly valuable. I was curious how you felt about how social media is affecting people and their actual attachment to political issues. You discuss how Facebook and Twitter increase participation, but I feel as if it allows many users to simply get a very birds-eye view of issues, and they lack fundamental details, and thus causes them to never get the "big picture".
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:05 Travis W. Gillison
Malcolm Gladwell: 
I would agree, at least in part. What Twitter and Facebook are capable of doing is introducing a very large group of people to a subject or an issue. The hard part is getting them to go beyond that introduction and dig in deeper--and that leap requires some additional form of social engagement. The Obama election campaign did a very good job of doing both--augmenting social media tools with old-school grass roots organizing. To me, that's the gold standard.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:07 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From Dan WeingrodDan Weingrod: ] 
Don't you think you are drawing a rather unfair comparison between the Civil Rights movement and Shirky's "Sidekick" example. In his other book and in presentations he has discussed how social media created large scale demonstrations in Korea that had a hand in bringing down the PM, or Chinese post-earthquake tweeting that outed corrupt government figures
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:08 Dan Weingrod
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Yes, Shirky has written quite a bit that is relevant here. I'm not sure I took something representive though. Evgeny Morozov, who has written quite brilliantly on this subject, reviewed Shirky's new book, "Cognitive Surplus" and rather devastatingly took apart Shirky's example of South Korean digital activism. (Turns out there wasn't much particularly digital about those protests). I should add that I think Shirky is  a superb thinker--and on issues other that social activism he says some really insightful things.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:10 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From LynneLynne: ] 
Do you have a Twitter acct? What do you use it for?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:11 Lynne
Malcolm Gladwell: 
I think someone created a twitter account in my name, and tweeted things a whlie back. I'll confess to not being much of a twitter reader/user myself. I think there's enough reading materials and writing opportunites in my life already.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:12 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From Jeff SwiftJeff Swift: ] 
You wrote in your article that social media traditionally do not ask much of people--that they are great at getting superficial involvement, not at driving social movements. Is the issue that social media *can't* or *hasn't* done this? In other words, is it possible for social media to drive meaningful social change?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:12 Jeff Swift
Malcolm Gladwell: 
I don't see it frankly. Not unless (as I wrote earlier) it is married to some kind of traditional grass roots organization. The basic problem is that there are certain kinds of relationships that are only possible face to face. Its like asking--do you think it is possible for marriages to ever become entirely virtual? Well, no--not unless we considerably water down our definition of a marriage.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:13 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From William CarletonWilliam Carleton: ] 
Mr. Gladwell, the COO of Facebook and a Twitter exec both spoke at a marketing conference this week. In a way, they seem to be making your case for you, without much sense of irony. The description of the session led by the FB exec talks of "activisim" as a brand promotion tool. Do you think part of why social media reinforces the status quo may be because the stewards of the most succesful platforms seem to be selling them short?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:14 William Carleton
Malcolm Gladwell: 
That's hilarious. If the civil rights movment were taking place today, do you think that some corporate entity would see it as a brand opportunity as well? Would Dr. King have done Nike ads? But yes, I'm not sure Facebook does much for real activism when they treat it as just another app.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:15 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From GuestGuest: ] 
I've grown closer to colleagues and friends through twitter, and I believe its honed the writing skills of many a poet and comedian. Can you see this as useful at all?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:16 Guest
Malcolm Gladwell: 
At last! A positive side effect of social media! I would guess it has improved the typing skills of many users as well. Cool
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:16 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From JamesJames: ] 
The crux of your argument seems to be that online activism is based on weak ties and decentralization. Aren’t there examples, though, of organizations “casting a net” on facebook/twitter/etc. in order to bring them into more traditional hierarchical organization? The example that springs to mind is, but I’m wondering what other examples you’ve come across.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:17 James
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Absolutely. See my comment previously. In combination with grass roots work, it can be a very useful tool.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:17 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From EliEli: ] 
Hello, I really enjoyed your article and I think a lot of the critics seemed to miss the point (weak-ties, strong-ties). What do you think of the criticism?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:18 Eli
Malcolm Gladwell: 
I've actually been impressed by the seriousness with which many social media activists have addressed my arguments. One of the (many) strengths of the digital movement is its intellectual sophistication. That's why I thought it would be interesting to have this kind of argument with them.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:20 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From Steve WSteve W: ] 
Does the hierarchical structure protect the activist org from intell collection or disruption? Are networked structures more vulnerable in that regard?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:20 Steve W
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Yes. That was one of the fascinating fingers from the work political scientists have started to do on networked terrorist/outsider groups. For every advantage networks give you (resiliency, adaptability, scale)  they carry some significant disadvantages; they are really easy to penetrate and subvert. Oh--and they have trouble thinking and acting strategically.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:21 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From GuestGuest: ] 
Some would say that if Twitter had existed in the 60's, the students who organized the Greensboro sit-in would have used it to spread the word. What do you think of this?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:22 Guest
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Well, the historical evidence suggests that spreading the word was the one problem they DIDN'T have. The sit-ins spread throughout the South like wildfire. Twitter (like so many modern innovations) would have solved a problem they didn't have.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:23 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From MM: ] 
Folks at progressive orgs use the Internet every day to convert people from online activists to offline. Have been for years. There's no question it works. Not using social media is as silly as not using the phone. Did you talk to any organizers when writing this piece? (Still a fan, FYI.)
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:23 M
Malcolm Gladwell: 
See my previous answers. Yes. Totally agree. But they using the internet to augment an existing organization. That's the appropriate use.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:24 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From NoahNoah: ] 
What do you think of Scvngr's attempt to "build a game layer on top of the world," recently profiled in the NYTimes and in a TedTalk? His thesis is that the last decade was the decade of building a social framework, and this decade will be for using "game dynamics" to normatively influence behavior within the already constructed social framework.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:24 Noah
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Oy. Save me. This is what drives me crazy about the digerati. They refuse to accept the fact that there is a class of social problems for which there is no technological solution. Look. Technology is going to solve the energy problem. I"m convinced of it. Technology is going to give me a computer in ten years time that will fly me to the moon. Technology is going to build a car that goes 100 miles to the gallon. But technology does not and cannot change the underlying dynamics of "human" problems: it doesn't make it easier to love or motivate or dream or convince.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:27 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From BethInDCBethInDC: ] 
Not sure why Facebook and Twitter wouldn't have complemented activism in the 60s by helping it spread faster. It is not just people with weak ties on Twitter and Facebook -- sometimes it is just a convenient channel for communicating with your stronger ties.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:28 BethInDC
Malcolm Gladwell: 
This question goes to the nub of the issue. Why wouldn't Facebook and Twitter have helped activism spread faster? Well, first because there were plenty of other means of communication possible, even in the 1960's. :-) But also---more importantly--because spreading the word is not the issue! That was my whole point. When you are fighting a high-stakes, high-risk battle, like the civil rights battle, the issue is whether you can convince and motivate people to risk their likelihoods by acting in a disciplined and intelligent way against a formidable and dangerous opponent. Communicating with them is five percent of the problem.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:30 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From Jon GarfunkelJon Garfunkel: ] 
There have been many responses to your article posted online already. How many have you read, and do you plan on responding to them in more depth than this space allows?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:31 Jon Garfunkel
Malcolm Gladwell: 
I've read some. But I'm on to the next story. Next up: General Motors!
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:31 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From teachingwthsoulteachingwthsoul: ] 
Really have to disagree with your comment Malcolm on twitter being a place of random observations. Speaking as a principal with 14 years in the field and now as an ed consultant, I collabrate with 1000's of educators world wide! I would hardly call our connections trivial or random.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:32 teachingwthsoul
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Of course. Not all communication on Twitter is random.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:32 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From John StapletonJohn Stapleton: ] 
you note on that "eventually" Some seventy thousand students eventually took part. Isn't this the point? It took quite a while to get things going in the protests. Today, hundreds of thousands can get involved almost overnight?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:33 John Stapleton
Malcolm Gladwell: 
See my earlier response. The issue isn't informing people. It's organizing people. Twitter is great at the first. But not so great at the second--and Dr. King and his counterparts needed organizations, not communications tools. Remember in the 1960's you could reliably reach upwards of 95 percent of the black community in urban areas in the South through the church. And there you had their undivided attention for an hour! Who needs Twitter when you have sermons and regular prayer meetings?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:35 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From mhoughtonmhoughton: ] 
Why don't you tweet more often?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:35 mhoughton
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Life is too short. No, seriously, everyone has to determine what the best use of their time and energy is. I have many friends, who I respect, who tweet. I don't, because I worry that the time I devoted to tweeting would take time away from things with more impact and permanence.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:36 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From KevinKevin: ] 
Without completely oversimplifying your argument/article, is the fundamental difference between Twitter/Facebook/social networking and revolution akin to reaction versus action? The revolution you wrote about required real effort and actual presence, while social networking is more about reacting to ideas put out by someone (anyone) and doesn't really ask the target audience to get involved beyond retweeting or pressing the thumb's up icon on a page.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:36 Kevin
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Nicely put!
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:37 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From PooglePoogle: ] 
Is 140 characters sufficient to convey their message? How can we as social activists convey our message in 140 characters?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:38 Poogle
Malcolm Gladwell: 
That was 119 characters. You have 21 left.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:39 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From James SeddonJames Seddon: ] 
Why do you think people get so defensive when Twitter is criticised?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:39 James Seddon
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Wierd, isn't it? Do you think it would make matters worse if I admitted that I also hate the iphone?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:40 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From Andia WinslowAndia Winslow: ] 
Speaking of structure, how do we --"the collective"-- return to sustainable social activism and change if so frequently distracted by the random ponderings and information streams of FB, IN, Twit et al?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:40 Andia Winslow
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Good question. I like the way you reframe the issue in terms of attention. Surely the issue in our day and age is not reaching people with a mesasge. It's getting them to focus on the message. We've taken enormous strides in improving the first of those. But maybe, along the way, gone backwards on the second of those challenges.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:42 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From Norbert Mayer-WittmannNorbert Mayer-Wittmann: ] 
I would like to know if you can give an operational definition of the term "social media". So far, I have not yet met anyone who can, so the term seems to be meaningless.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:43 Norbert Mayer-Wittmann
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Great question! Anyone?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:43 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From RachelRachel: ] 
Malcolm, the twitterverse has noted that you hardly use twitter at all- how does this influence your opinion of the service and what it can be used to accomplish?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:43 Rachel
Malcolm Gladwell: 
I have nothing against Twitter. And I'd use it if I had more time. . . Here's the deeper issue for someone like me or, for that matter, anyone contemplating using tools like Twitter. What is it you want to accomplish? Do you want a broad audience? Or a deep audience? In other words, would you rather do the best possible job engaging with a small but focused audience. Or would you rather spend your marginal hour reaching a large audience on a superficial level? There are lot of situations where the latter is a reasonable choice--like if I'm selling something, or announcing an event, or sharing a small but crucial bit of information. But I'm interested in exploring ideas in depth with the (small) group of people willing to geek-out with me. That makes strategy A a better choice.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:46 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From @millerlarry@millerlarry: ] 
Hi Malcolm, As president and CEO of MedNetworks, a company which maps social networks, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the power of “naturally occurring” social networks to foster behavioral change, or in “created” social networks, to change important health behaviors such as smoking, etc. From my perspective, it seems social network technology can change the world, or at least a small part of it, but it requires a systematic, data-based approach. Would you agree? Larry Miller, MedNetworks @millerlarry
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:47 @millerlarry
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Oh yes. There is enomrous potential here for using closely structured networks to influence health behavior. In fact, there was a fascinating piece in Science a few weeks ago on this very issue.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:48 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From PetePete: ] 
I really don't like social networking in general. Any tips on how I can be critical of it without sounding like a 70-year-old man?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:48 Pete
Malcolm Gladwell: 
What's wrong with sounding like a 70 year old man? I do it all the time! 70 is the new 18!
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:49 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From MusickEdMusickEd: ] 
Twitter (currently) has been a great tool for making business connections. I wonder if you think it will ever become 'corrupt' in a "myspace" way where the line between truth and lies is so bad that no one trusts it anymore?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:49 MusickEd
Malcolm Gladwell: 
um, yes.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:49 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From CraigCraig: ] 
It took the civil rights movement a long time to draw attention to its cause, but once television cameras were at the Edmond Pettus bridge and beamed the brutal repression into America's living rooms, the movement really turned a corner. Would the ability of the Freedom Riders to have posted videos of what they encountered to a Facebook account have created an earlier awareness of the brutal violence in the south?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:50 Craig
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Interesting question. I was going to go into this in my piece--and ran out of space. One of the least understood things about the Civil Rights Movement is how skillfully they manipulated the news meda. The showdown with Bull Connor in Birmingham was a great example: they pushed Connor into over-reacting, knowing that the resulting images of German shepherds attacking peaceful marchers and children being hit with powerful hoses would do more to advance their cause than anything else. The reason this worked is that in the 1960's the mass media really was mass: you could get a 50 percent share for a compelling news story on the nightly news! Today they would have to use Facebook--but in the absence of a mass media that strategy would have been less effective, not more.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:53 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From ChelseaChelsea: ] 
Hi Malcolm--You only follow eight people on Twitter, and none of them are individuals. Does this mean that you think Twitter is better as a means of getting your ideas out there, rather than following the ideas of others?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:53 Chelsea
Malcolm Gladwell: 
That's not me! I've never twittered! The person calling himself Malcolm Gladwell follows eight other twitterers!
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:54 Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Two more questions!
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:54 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From from indiafrom india: ] 
Angus Johnston in the Huff. Post says you don't understand social networks. If you had a chance to read the article, what is your take on his perspective?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:55 from india
Malcolm Gladwell: 
I think what he means is that I don't agree with him. Incomprehension is simply what a narcissist calls disagreement.
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:56 Malcolm Gladwell
[Comment From DavidDavid: ] 
A couple weeks ago, on this online live chat, I asked Rick Hertzberg why he's not on Twitter. He said there's no reason to be on Twitter and likened it to heroin & torture. Did his opinion play any role in this story of yours?
Wednesday September 29, 2010 3:58 David
Malcolm Gladwell: 
Heroin and torture!
Yes, there are my co-workers.
Thanks for joining in, everyone. I thought the questions were great!
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